Smile! At least you’re poor!

So, here are some research findings with interesting implications for contemporary policy debates in the U.S.:

Kenyans—despite living in a country with nine times the infant mortality rate of the United States and living twenty-two fewer years—report being as satisfied with their health care system as Americans are.

Afghanis, for their part, are part of the fourth most impoverished nationality in the world.  They also report above-average levels of happiness.  In fact, Afghanis smile significantly more frequently than do the notoriously chipper Cubans.

I haven’t posted very frequently (or at all) on the things I’m learning on the academic front.  While my brain is certainly being stuffed full of all sorts of knowledge, I generally don’t see much aim in me publicly regurgitating it if I don’t have anything to add.  That said, I’ve made it a point to attend public lectures and seminars here, and some of them—like Carol Graham’s lecture on the economics of happiness today—are too fascinating not to share.

Some of her results are straightforward and unsurprising.  Higher income countries are, on the whole, happier than lower income ones, though the benefits to increased income fall drastically after a certain point (it’s not much better to be American than Portuguese).  Married people are a lot happier than unmarried ones (though the causality might run both ways—that is, happy people get married rather than married people get happy).  Education doesn’t have much impact on happiness either way, while unemployment has massive negative effects on self-reported well-being.  Happiness declines over a person’s lifetime until they are about forty-five, after which point it starts to rise.  People over eighty are the happiest people in the world.  Centenarians are pretty much living on cloud nine 24/7.

Five times as rich as Columbians, and we're no happier.

Okay, so no mind-blowing so far.  Where it gets interesting is in the adaptability of human happiness to stress, shock, and trauma.  Reported happiness in the U.S. dropped significantly in the 2008 economic crisis; if you superimpose a graph of happiness on the stock market, they track almost perfectly, until the start of 2009.  After then, happiness rebounded much faster than shares; in fact, Americans are now as happy as they were in the good times of 2007, even though they are materially much worse off.  The same inelasticity of happiness can be seen in more extreme examples: Afghans, for example, are relatively unaffected by corruption and crime, presumably because they’re so used to it.  On an individual basis, people who are victims of horribly accident and become paralyzed eventually make their way back to their previous level of happiness, despite facing disabilities we would assume would be quite depressing.

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that there are all sorts of problems with the study of “happiness.”  What, after all, is happiness, and what do people mean when they say they are happy?  Jackie’s students in Thailand, when asked, “How are you?” respond “I am happy” in the same way an American would say “I am fine.”  How people describe their happiness is heavily dependent on how you ask the question: the response to an open-ended question about happiness is very different from one in which a person is asked to compare their current life to the best possible life they can imagine.  People are much less like to say they are happy, in response to a survey, if the question is asked after queries about their job or home life.

Methodological problems aside, though, what I learned has some interesting implications.  The indomitable adaptability of human beings becomes inconvenient and confusing, from an international development perspective, when we apply it to economic growth.  People who bump up to a higher income bracket—either because they won the lottery or got a raise—are initially quite pleased but tend to “adapt” back to their previous level of happiness, as if nothing had changed.  More broadly, countries seem to keep to their previous level of happiness in spite of economic growth.  The United States has had a four-fold increase in GDP per capita in the last half-century, but we are no happier for it.  Japan’s income per head has quintupled over that same period, but there happiness has actually declined.  The process of economic growth itself actually seems to make people unhappy: as a species, we like being rich, but we don’t much appreciate the instability and change required to get there.

This brings us back to the contented Kenyans and the cheery Afghans.  There are so many reasons why I think it’s “bad” that Kenyans have nearly non-existent healthcare and Afghans lack basic freedoms and security.  And yet, from a utilitarian point of view, it is challenging to explain, why, exactly, these deprivations need to be corrected.  What, after all, is the point of development if it doesn’t make people any happier?  People seem to want clinics, schools, roads, and factories, but if these things aren’t ultimately going to make their lives any better, what’s the point?

From another perspective, there is something hopeful about the idea that more is not necessarily better.  As I prepare to go to London tomorrow to demonstrate against inaction on global warming, it is increasingly apparent to me that the implicit assumption of international development is a sham.  We like to envision a world where everyone can attain a Western standard of living, but it’s increasingly obvious that the biosphere could never support it.  At least now I know that giving up on this illusion doesn’t mean much, since it wouldn’t make us happier anyway.

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