Friday, July 1, 2011

The Measure of Human Happiness

by Clive Crook

The Atlantic

July 1, 2011

A theme at many sessions at this year's AIF has been happiness--what it is, how you advance it, how you measure it. Fascinating. Justin Wolfers and Robert Frank had an interesting exchange on this earlier in the week, and I'm continuing to turn their arguments over in my mind.

Wolfers tore into the "Easterlin Paradox", which is the claim that happiness does not rise with income beyond a certain point. That finding (see Richard Easterlin: Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?) gave rise to the popular view that, for rich countries at least, economic growth is a treadmill. People are struggling to improve their status, and feel happier if they succeed, but the race for status goods is zero-sum. Growth in absolute income cannot raise everybody's relative position. It allows higher consumption but expands desires at about the same rate. The gain in happiness, if any, is small. For a rich country, the obsession with growth in GDP is an error.

Wolfers walked through his impressive array of data--derived from a remarkable project of international comparisons undertaken by Gallup--and argued that the Easterlin claim is simply and unambiguously false. Higher incomes make people happier. It takes ever larger increases in absolute income to yield a given improvement in happiness (happiness rises with the log of income), but there is no point of saturation. Within countries, richer people are happier than poor people. Globally, rich countries are happier than poor countries. He examined some of the statistical evidence which is said to point the other way, and showed it was wrong. Economic growth does what it is supposed to.


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