What is wrong with the way governments are pursuing happiness objectives?

There can be no doubt that western democratic governments have been attempting to promote the happiness of citizens for a long time. They may not talk much about attempting to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or any similar high-sounding principle, but they have a wide range of policies intended to promote the well-being of citizens in general or of various groups. When it comes to discussion of government policy most citizens could be broadly described as utilitarians. We may feel strongly about rights, but we have come to expect policy debates to focus on the effects of proposed policy changes on particular groups of gainers and losers and on the wider community.

As I see it there is nothing inherently wrong with governments seeking to enable us to live happier lives, particularly since this is what many citizens want. It is certainly better to have people in government trying to enable us to live happier lives than for them to be trying to make themselves happier at our expense. The main problem as I see it is that the approaches that we – the people in western democracies – have been encouraging governments to adopt to help us to live happier lives have often been counter-productive.

The first problem has to do with our perceptions of the nature of happiness. I think we have been too ready to assume that the best way to enable people to live happier lives is to attempt to control their lives for them. Thus, for example, people are taxed during their working lives to provide health care or retirement incomes that they could afford to provide for themselves. Added to this we have proposals to prevent people from saving too little, working too hard, gambling too much, eating too much and so forth. We need to consider whether the humans are able to flourish if they do not have control of their own lives.

The second problem has to do with the idea that governments could promote the happiness of society if only it could be measured correctly. There has been an ongoing debate about the shortcomings of GDP as a well-being measure and various alternatives are being proposed, including some involving direct measurement of happiness. We need to consider whether it makes sense to discuss the relative merits of different indicators as though all the different factors that are important to the flourishing of any group of individuals can be captured by a single statistic.

The third problem has to do with the effects of government pursuit of happiness on individual flourishing. The more governments take over responsibility for our happiness, the more restrictions they impose on the opportunities that are available to us. For example, if governments regulate to reduce working hours in order to enable people to enjoy more leisure, this restricts the opportunities available to people who have strong personal reasons for working longer hours. We need to consider more carefully the likely effects of such government interventions.

The fourth problem has to do with the effects of government pursuit of happiness objectives on the social fabric. The opportunities available to individuals depend to a large extent on the kind of society they live in. If they live in a corrupt society in which rule of law is breaking down, their opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions with other citizens are likely to be diminished. Incentives for corruption are obviously stronger when governments intervene extensively to regulate the behaviour of citizens. We need to consider how successful different societies have been in containing corruption in the face of such incentives.

These issues are to be discussed in a book I am currently writing, with the provisional title:

We need to be
Free to Flourish

The introductory chapter of the book is available here. Comments would be appreciated. (Please do not be offended if I do not respond immediately because it may take a few days to re-surface, or come down to earth from other activities.)

Is Bhutan's GNH experiment a success or failure?

This charming little video provides some history of the concept of Gross National Happiness and its application in Bhutan.

It is amazing how much passion has been aroused by Gross National Happiness outside Bhutan. In August last year Jeffrey Sachs, a distinguished development economist, suggested that western countries should follow Bhutan in adopting Gross National Happiness as a national objective. His concern is that trends toward ‘hyper-consumerism’ have accelerated in the United States in recent decades and that this is destabilizing social relations and leading to aggressiveness, loneliness, greed, and over-work to the point of exhaustion. It is not self-evident that Sachs’ claims are true – and he provides no evidence in support of them. More importantly, it is not clear how he thinks adopting Gross National Happiness as a national objective in western countries would lead to better outcomes. I fear that the remedy he has in mind for alleged hyper-consumerism is additional paternalistic interventions by governments to further remove from individuals the responsibility to control their own lives.

On the other side of the canvas, Julie Novak, a free market liberal whose views I normally respect, has described Bhutan’s adoption of the GNH objective as a failed experiment. Julie’s reasoning seems to be that the experiment must have failed because Bhutan has a relatively low per capita GDP level and its ratings on various social indicators are also relatively low. However, I doubt whether many people would claim that adopting GNH as an objective can immediately lift the average well-being of people in a low-income country like Bhutan to a level comparable to that attainable in the most affluent countries. That would be just as silly as claiming that an increase in economic freedom can convert a low-income country immediately into a high-income country.

It makes more sense to compare Bhutan’s performance on various economic and social indicators with that of other low-income countries. The comparison I made between Bhutan and India, here, suggests that Bhutan has performed reasonably well. For example, Bhutan’s average economic growth rate of around 8 per cent per annum over the decade to 2007 was substantially higher than that for India.

It seems to me that it is far too soon to come to a judgment about Bhutan’s GNH experiment, particularly since it is only in recent years that a serious attempt has been made to measure GNH and there is little evidence to suggest how this information will actually be used in policy development. I concluded my research on this topic for APEL by suggesting that it is not yet clear to what extent the judgments implicit in the methodology reflect the values of the people of Bhutan on such matters as the dimensions of well-being that are important and the weighting that should be given to each dimension. One of my concerns is that the weight that people living in urban centres may wish to give to resilience of cultural traditions may differ substantially from that of people living a traditional rural lifestyle. It would not make sense to claim, for example, that the happiness of any individuals can be enhanced by forcing them to adopt traditional lifestyles if they would prefer more cosmopolitan lifestyles (or vice versa).

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How Much Does Overwork Effect Happiness?

The results of a survey conducted recently by the Australia Institute apparently shows that half of Australians (61 per cent of those working overtime) were prevented from spending enough time with family in the preceding week as a result of over-work. According to the press release (which is the most detailed description of the study I could find) a lot of people don’t have time to exercise, eat healthy meals or go to the doctor when they should.

If we take the results of this survey at face value it would appear that over-work is a huge problem in Australia. I suspect, however, that the problem or over-work is not as widespread as the Australia Institute suggests. I also suspect that over-work has a much smaller adverse impact on happiness than does under-work.

Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au

The results of a study by Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels and Gert Wagner, based on a long-running German panel survey, shows working hours to be one of the factors that has a long-term impact on life satisfaction. One of the things I like about the study is that the variable used is a measure of the extent to which respondents achieve their preferred tradeoff between work and leisure, rather than divergence of working hours from some arbitrary standard chosen by researchers. The relevant variable was the gap between the number of hours a week respondents said they would prefer to work and the number of hours per week they actually work. Those who worked over 3 hours per week more than they preferred were treated as overworked and those who worked over 3 hours per week less than they preferred were treated as underworked (‘Long running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes matter for happiness’ PNAS, 2010).

The results indicate that the negative impact of under-work on life satisfaction was about four times greater than the negative impact of over-work. The authors suggest that this ‘is presumably because lost consumption rankles worse than lost leisure’. (It would seem that the regression analysis does not control for income levels.) The study suggests that the negative effect of unemployment is much worse than that of either over-work or under-work (about four times greater than for underwork).

Some of the other results of the study might help further to put these findings into perspective. The study shows that social participation – a measure of frequency of meetings with and helping out friends, relatives and neighbours – has a substantial positive effect on life satisfaction of around the same magnitude as the negative effect of under-work. The positive effect on life satisfaction of frequent exercise is of about the same magnitude as the negative effect of over-work. The adverse effect of having a neurotic personality is about ten times greater than that of being overworked, but having a neurotic partner has only about half the adverse effect of being overworked.

What should we make of these findings? One obvious qualification is that it isn’t clear to what extent they might apply outside Germany. Leaving that aside, it seems to me that the most important implication is the importance to individual happiness of having the opportunity to work as many hours as individuals the individuals concerned want to work. Under-work is not as bad as unemployment, but it is likely to be a much worse problem for the individuals concerned than is over-work.

It is hard to see how anyone could argue that overwork could be a huge problem when people are free to choose among jobs on the basis of hours of work along with other employment conditions. Some individuals may make bad choices, allowing themselves too little time for social participation and exercise, but that is not a systemic problem.

Does Meaningful Work Contribute to Life Satisfaction?

In my last post I expressed disappointment that the authors of an article about material prosperity and life satisfaction did not acknowledge the sense of achievement that many people obtain from their work.

How do I know that meaningful work contributes to life satisfaction? It would be easy enough to make a fairly long list of people I know who probably get a great deal of satisfaction from their work. I expect many readers could make similar lists. There is also some research evidence on this question.

It is well known that unemployed people tend to have much lower levels of life satisfaction than people in other workforce categories (including those who have retired). The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index indicates, however, that unemployed people also tend to have much lower levels of satisfaction with what they are achieving in life. There is also a marked difference in satisfaction with ‘achieving in life’ between employed people who are looking for alternative work and those not looking for work. Robert Cummins et al, authors of the report, suggest that low satisfaction with what they are achieving in life may be one of the main reasons why people seek to change their employment. The authors add: ‘Many employed people gain a great sense of ‘purpose in life’ from their employment, and having a sense of purpose is central to wellbeing’ (See: Report 17, April 2007, p. 164-5 and Figures 8.9 and 8.18).

Research on the relative contributions to life satisfaction of orientations to pleasure, engagement (the psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities) and meaning (pursuit of a meaningful life) is also relevant. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park and Martin Seligman have found (using data from an internet survey) that orientations to engagement and meaning have a greater impact on life satisfaction than does pleasure. The authors also found somewhat higher life satisfaction scores for respondents simultaneously near the top of all three orientations and notably lower scores for respondents simultaneously near the bottom of all three orientations (‘Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2005).

A short article by Amanda Horne on the ‘Positive Psychology News Daily’ site refers to research by Michael Steger and Bryan Dik which suggests that meaningful work is associated with people developing a sense of identity which comes from knowing ‘who they are, how their world works and how they fit in with and related to the life around them’ and ‘people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particularly highly valued, over-arching life goals’ (Chapter on finding meaning at work in Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work).

One of the points emphasised by Peter Warr, the author of extensive research on happiness in the workplace, is whether individuals want to be in the role they have been assigned, the value to them of different role characteristics and the attractiveness of core tasks. He suggests that such matters can have major implications for individual happiness. Warr also notes:

Some happiness is not actually accompanied by feelings of pleasure, or satisfaction of desires. This second form of happiness invokes reference standards of some kind, perhaps some realization of personal potential’ (‘Searching for happiness at work’, The Psychologist, Dec. 2007).

Some people might wonder why people who claim to get a great sense of achievement from their work often require high levels of remuneration for their services. I think this might have a lot to do with rationing of their time. Successful actors, sporting professionals, business leaders, artists etc. can be fairly sure that by requiring high levels of remuneration their services will be purchased by people who will appreciate them. They also know that can always give their wealth away if they feel embarrassed by the amount they are accumulating for doing things they might be happy doing for nothing.

Consideration of the way high-achievers allocate their time raises some obvious questions about the importance to life satisfaction of an appropriate balance between work and home life and between different domains such as ‘achieving in life’ and ‘personal relationships’. That might be a good subject for a later post.

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Is Life Satisfaction Mainly About Comfort?

‘Contrary to both those who say money is not associated with happiness and those who say that it is extremely important, we found that money is much more related to some forms of well-being than it is to others. Income is most strongly associated with the life evaluation form of well-being, which is a reflective judgment on people’s lives compared with what they want them to be. Although statistically significant, the association of income with positive and negative feelings was modest’ (Ed Diener, Weiting Ng, James Harta and Raksha Arora, ‘Wealth and happiness across the world …’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (99:1), 2010, p. 60. Media reports: here and here.)

In my view this recent article makes an important contribution to understanding of the relationship between wealth and emotional well-being by attempting to disentangle the determinants of life satisfaction and positive feelings. The article, based on data from the Gallup World Poll, suggests that while satisfaction with standard of living has a substantial impact on satisfaction with life as a whole it has little impact on positive or negative feelings (emotions experienced ‘yesterday’).

The study uses satisfaction with standard of living and a measure of whether people own luxury conveniences (TV, computers etc) as proxy measures of fulfillment of material desires. The basic idea is that people learn to desire material goods because of their social situation (including the influence of advertising) and the fulfillment of these desires leads to feelings of well-being. Some groups (e.g. the Amish) seem to be reasonably happy without much income because they have relatively low aspirations for material goods.

The authors link their findings to the distinction that Tibor Scitovsky made between comfort and pleasure (‘The Joyless Economy’, 1978). They suggest that ‘it may be that’ comforts increase life evaluations whereas pleasures increase reports of positive feelings:

‘Comfort comes from having one’s needs and desires continuously fulfilled, whereas pleasures come from fulfilling unmet needs and from stimulating and challenging activities. One source of pleasure according to Scitovsky is social stimulation, which he suggested lies largely outside the realm of economics. Novelty and learning can be sources of pleasure too. Thus, Scitovsky’s reasoning is in accord with our findings that wealth predicts life satisfaction, and social relationships and learning new things predict positive feelings’ p.59 .

I found that passage fairly challenging, but reading it didn’t give me positive feelings. I don’t have too many problems with the idea that being satisfied with your standard of living is closely related to comfort, but there other factors related to economic activity – such as a sense of achievement – that may make an important contribution to life satisfaction.

A couple of years ago I attempted to identify how necessary various domains of quality of life are to high satisfaction with life as a whole using data compiled by the Australian Centre on Quality of Life (reported here). The criterion used was the percentage of respondents with high satisfaction with life as a whole among those with low ratings on particular domains of quality of life. The percentages were follows (ranked in order of importance of each domain): personal relationships 10.8%, achieving in life 11.8%, standard of living 12.8%, future security 15.6%, health 15.9%, community connectedness 19.0% and safety 20.3%. The results suggest that ‘achieving in life’ is more necessary to high life satisfaction for Australians than is ‘standard of living’.

I do not claim that working for money is the only way that people can obtain a strong sense of achievement, but it would be very surprising if achievement is unrelated to economic success.

Does Identity Economics Predict Happiness in Different Societies?

I get the impression from the methodology chapter of their recent book, ‘Identity Economics’, that George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton are not particularly interested in econometric tests of the predictive power of their theory. They suggest that it is difficult to falsify any theory because ‘even the most straight forward test has literally millions of possible specifications’ (p. 115). I think they are exaggerating, but even accepting their point it seems to me that useful knowledge may be gained by considering what predictions might follow from a new theory and how well those predictions describe aspects of the real world.

The key idea of identity economics is that people gain utility when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity (or social category e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) and lose utility when they do not. We should expect this to be so if we accept that individual behaviour is strongly influenced by socialization and that norms of behaviour can differ between people in different social categories.

The key idea of identity economics suggests that, other things being equal, people are likely to be happier when they live in societies where there are few economic or social pressures for them to act in ways that are contrary to the norms and ideals of their identity. It is important to define what we mean by happiness in this context. I think the appropriate concept in this instance is emotional well-being, as measured in happiness surveys, rather than an all-inclusive concept of well-being explicitly incorporating such factors as wealth, health and education. It seems reasonable to expect that, other things equal, people with high levels of identity utility would be more likely to say that they are happy or satisfied with life than would people with low levels of identity utility.

It seems to me that one prediction we could make on the basis of identity theory is that people in homogeneous societies are likely to be happier than those in societies in which individuals have to interact with people who have different cultural backgrounds. We might expect that this effect would depend on the strength of ties to particular groups in multi-cultural societies, but we would expect homogeneity to be a plus for average happiness.

Is the evidence from happiness research consistent with this prediction? When I did a Google search using the words ‘happiness’ and ‘homogeneity’ the first results I saw seemed consistent with the prediction – people in countries that homogeneous (as well as affluent) tend to be the happiest. However, delving deeper, I found a more careful study for 65 countries, using multiple regression to control for other variables, which suggests that ethnic homogeneity may actually have a negative effect on average life satisfaction (Douglas Barrett, Kristen Van Rensselaer and Bruce Gordon, ‘Possible effects of national population homogeneity on happiness’, Journal of International Business Research, 6 (1), 2007).

The authors comment as follows:

‘The results suggest that life satisfaction is significantly negatively related to ethnic homogeneity in the presence of our control variables. This is consistent with the “melting pot” concept, as multiple cultural influences create a richer living environment’ (p. 55).

I’m not sure what a richer living environment actually means. Perhaps one way of thinking about it is that a richer living environment enables us to get some of the benefits of foreign travel (e.g. sampling foreign food) without leaving the country. I think the result may also be consistent with identity economics if we view successful multicultural societies as providing a learning experiences in which a substantial proportion of the population from all major ethnic groups have come to view themselves as tolerant of diversity. We should expect tolerant people to gain utility from acting in accordance with their ideals.

Where are People Most Satisfied With Efforts to Preserve the Environment?

This question arose as I was thinking about the relationship between the determinants of happiness (i.e. survey measures of subjective well-being or SWB) and human flourishing at a national level.

Recent research has been able to explain around 90% of inter-country differences in average SWB in terms of average income levels, enough money for food, healthy life expectancy, friends to count on, perceptions of freedom, corruption, charitable donations and church attendance. (See: John Helliwell et al, NBER Working Paper 14720.) It is not surprising that these factors affect well-being but it is hard to accept that items on this short list could explain as much as 90% of variation among countries in average well-being. Other factors that might also be thought likely to affect well-being include education, environmental quality, democratic institutions, and participation in cultural and sporting activities.

In the case of education, some studies have shown that while higher levels of education tend to be associated with higher levels of SWB, the effects of education tend to drop out when other factors such as health status and income are included in models. Education improves health and income-earning potential and thus indirectly contributes to SWB. Furthermore, the importance of education to individual well-being does not depend solely on its impact on satisfaction with life or happiness. Education could arguably still be good for people even if it did not make them feel good.

It is possible that similar considerations may apply with regard to environmental quality. For example, water and air pollution are detrimental to health and longevity. Furthermore, arguments advanced in favour of preserving the natural environment do not rest solely on the contribution it makes to the emotional well-being of humans.

However, there does not seem to have been as much research done on the contribution of environmental quality to SWB. This may be because of the difficulty of interpreting available survey data relating to perceptions of the natural environment.

The World Values Surveys include questions concerning the priorities that people give to environmental protection. These surveys show that the proportion of the population who consider that higher priority should be given to environmental protection than to economic growth tends to be somewhat higher in high-income countries with relatively high average SWB. These results might reflect what Ronald Inglehart has described as a shift toward postmaterialist values in advanced industrial societies rather than dissatisfaction with efforts to preserve the environment.

The Gallup World Poll asks respondents specifically whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with efforts to preserve the environment in their country. Some characteristics of countries in which high and low proportions of the population are satisfied with efforts to preserve the environment can be compared in the chart below. The other variables shown in the chart are: per capita GDP expressed as a percentage of that in the country with highest per capita GDP (United Arab Emirates); average quality of life (data from the Gallup World Poll expressed in percentage terms); government effectiveness -perceptions of the quality of public services; and regulatory quality – permitting and promoting private sector development. (The latter two indexes are sub-indexes of the World Bank’s suite of governance indicators, converted to percentage terms such that the country with lowest rating has a score of 0% and the country with the highest rating has a score of 100%.)


The chart hows that satisfaction with efforts to preserve the environment tends to be somewhat greater in countries with higher average incomes. The factor that stands out most, however, as a characteristic of countries in which there is greatest satisfaction with efforts to preserve the environment is government effectiveness.

Countries which rate highly in terms of both satisfaction with environmental efforts and government effectiveness include Singapore, Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand. At the other end of the scale, countries which combine low ratings in terms of both of these factors include Mongolia, Ukraine and Pakistan.

What Do We Know About the Neurology of Human Flourishing?

“Human flourishing is fundamentally a self-directed activity. … Flourishing does not consist in the mere possession and use of goods that might be necessary for a flourishing life. Rather, human flourishing consists in a person developing the skills, habits, judgements and virtues that will, in most cases, achieve the needed goods. The goods must, in a central way, be made one’s own”: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, “Norms of Liberty”, 2005: 86.

Is there a readable book about the neurology of human flourishing? The only book that I am aware of that comes close is “Iconoclast”, by Gregory Berns. This book discusses things that have probably happened at a neurological level when famous people have achieved extraordinary things. The brain functions and processes that Berns writes about, however, seem to me to be relevant to the character development and flourishing of all humans.

What are the factors most likely to prevent individuals from achieving according to their potential? Anyone writing a list from the top of their head would be likely to include such things as: getting one’s thinking stuck in a rut; being constrained by fear of the unknown or fear of ridicule; social environments that reward conformity rather than individuality; and lack of skills in social networking. Gregory Berns discusses these factors.

Points made by Berns include the following:

  • In order to think creatively and imagine new possibilities it is necessary to break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. We need novel experiences in order to see things differently.
  • Constraints associated with conditioned fear responses can be inhibited through cognitive reappraisal (re-interpretation of information). For example, fear of uncertainty or ambiguity can be inhibited if the situation is viewed as an opportunity to gain additional knowledge by experimenting.
  • People have a strong tendency to follow the herd in order to avoid activating their fear systems. But one dissenter is typically enough to break the herd effect.
  • Important social networking skills include promoting familiarity with the goods you are selling (because familiarity defines what people like) and establishing a reputation for being trustworthy.

Do we need a neurologist to tell us such things? Probably not, but it is good to know that there is neurological evidence supporting at least some of the claims made by personal development practitioners.

There is a fair amount of discussion in the book relating to wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity and justice, but I don’t think there is much discussion of temperance or transcendence. One could hardly have expected all the human virtues to be discussed in the book, however, because Greg Burns did not actually set out to write a book about the neurology of human flourishing.

The Chinese Are Becoming Wealthier, So Why Aren’t They Happier?

This is the question raised in a recent article in the Journal of Happiness Studies: “The China puzzle: falling happiness in a rising economy”, by Hilke Brockman, Jan Delhey, Christian Weizel and Hao Yuan (V10, 4, 2009).

The focus of the study is the decade from 1990 to 2000. Even though real per capita GDP in China was 2.8 times higher in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of Chinese describing themselves as very happy declined from 28 percent to 12 percent and the average life satisfaction rating fell from 7.3 to 6.5 (on the WVS 10 point scale).

The authors consider three possible explanations: anomie (powerlessness), political disaffection (declining trust in government) and relative deprivation (frustration because increased income inequality resulted in a higher proportion of the population with below average incomes). Anomie is measured by survey data on the lack of a feeling of free choice and control over the way you live your life. Political disaffection is measured by survey data on lack of trust in the government and parliament. Survey data on financial dissatisfaction (dissatisfaction with the financial situation of your household) is used as a proxy for relative deprivation.

To cut a long story short, the authors conclude that relative deprivation provides the best explanation because the decline in life satisfaction is strongly associated with a decline in financial satisfaction. (A fuller summary of the article is available on Psyblog )

The main problem I have with this conclusion is that data presented in the article suggests that average life satisfaction of high income earners declined along with the life satisfaction of those on lower incomes. There was no reason for the high income earners to feel relative deprivation.

When I look closely at the data it seems to me that the main puzzle is not why average life satisfaction in China was lower in 2000 than in 1990, but why such a high proportion of Chinese were recorded as satisfied with life in 1990. This figure, 68 percent, was higher than in such high income countries as Austria, France, Germany and Japan.

When you look at average life satisfaction of people in different age groups (Fig. 1) older people seem to have been much happier than young people in 1990 and the situation has been partially reversed since then. A comparison of Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows similar patterns for life satisfaction and financial satisfaction. This suggests to me that the apparent decline in average life satisfaction between 1990 and 2000 might possibly be attributable to perceptions by older people that their financial security had declined for some reason e.g. concerns that as a result of social changes young people might be less likely to support them in their old age.

Even if we disregard the 1990 data, however, it is apparent from the Figures that we are still left with the problem of explaining why average life satisfaction and financial satisfaction has not increased since the mid 1990s. The decline in consumption as a percentage of GDP from about 50 percent around 1980 to about 32 percent in recent years cannot provide a complete explanation, because this has not prevented real per capita consumption from increasing substantially.

My guess is that the failure of average life satisfaction to rise in China is associated with a change in the benchmarks that people use to assess their current well-being. In 1990 many people in China may have been using past living standards as the benchmark in assessing their current satisfaction with life. Since then, however, their aspirations have probably risen as they have come to view the living standards enjoyed in high income countries as attainable in the foreseeable future. If I am right most Chinese people would probably agree that “they have never had it so good”, to borrow an unsuccessful political slogan. But those old enough to remember what life was like 30 years ago would probably rather forget about that.

Note: The subjective well-being data referred to above is from the World Values Survey. Gallup data also shows no increase in subjective well-being in China. See: http://www.gallup.com/poll/14548/chinese-far-wealthier-than-decade-ago-they-happier.aspx

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Can We Use Dollars to Compare How Much Various Life Events Affect Well-being?

The life events I propose to discuss here are things like major improvements or worsening in financial situation, getting married or divorced, having a child, serious personal injury, death of a spouse, being made redundant and change of residence. I will focus on subjective well-being, as measured by surveys which ask people for a numerical rating of their satisfaction with life.

One way to compare the impact of life events on well-being is to calculate what change in income would have an equivalent impact after controlling for other factors. Some readers might recall research findings for the U.S. and Britain which suggested that the increased income equivalent of a lasting marriage is around $100,000 and an increase in income of around $60,000 would be required to compensate for the loss in well-being associated with becoming unemployed. (These numbers come from some pioneering research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald published in 2000.)

There are several problems with the methodology of this early research which tend to overstate the income changes equivalent to life events. First, the methodology is based on estimates of the (small) impact that higher incomes have on current well-being without taking account of the impact of higher incomes on future well-being. Higher incomes enable the wealth accumulation (and the redistributions through tax and welfare systems) that make it possible for people to maintain their well-being during periods when earning potential is diminished (e.g. during retirement) or when they incur heavy costs or heavy costs are incurred on their behalf (e.g. education and medical expenses).

Second, the methodology focused on the impact of being in a particular state (e.g. married or unmarried) rather than on the duration or timing of the effects that life events have on well-being. Life events typically have large impacts on life satisfaction for only a relatively short period.

Third, the methodology was unable to distinguish causation. For example, it was unable to assess whether married people are happier than unmarried people because marriage tends to make people happy or because happy people are more likely to get married.

Research in this area has progressed a great deal in recent years, with the use of ongoing surveys that enable changes in the well-being of the same sample of people to be linked over time to life events. The HILDA survey (Australian data) shows that the events with the greatest positive effect on life satisfaction for both males and females included a major financial improvement in the past three months, having been married in the last three months and birth of a child (less than nine months ago). The events with greatest negative effect on life satisfaction included being detained in jail, a major financial worsening at any time in the last year, a recent separation from a spouse or partner and recent death of a relative or family member.

A recent paper by Paul Frijters, David Johnston and Michael Shields estimates the one-off windfall improvement in finances needed to compensate for various life events (‘Happiness dynamics with quarterly life event data’, DP 3604, IZA, July 2008). The windfall approach seems preferable because a comparison of the effects on current well-being of different life events avoids the conceptual and measurement problems of attempting to compare the effects of life events with the effects of differences in income levels.

The authors obtained the following estimates of compensating windfall financial gains for various life events:

Death of spouse/ child: + $178, 300
Serious personal injury or illness: + $ 59,200
Change of residence: – $ 53,000
Birth or adoption of child: – $ 18,300
Marriage – $ 16,500
Separation from spouse or partner: +$ 14,900
Fired or made redundant: + $ 6,900
Victim of property crime: +$ 2,700

(Currency: Australian dollars; $A1 = about $US 0.80. Assumed discount rate = 5% ) .

I should note that these compensating windfall estimates are additive. For example, a person who is fired might become separated from his or her spouse and experience a major financial worsening at the same time.

It seems to me that the magnitude of these estimated compensating windfalls generally make a lot more sense than do the much larger estimates of income-equivalents of life events. Nevertheless, I feel uneasy about the idea that the life satisfaction of people who suffer the death of a spouse or child would be unaffected, on average, if they received a windfall gain of around $A 178,300 at the same time. Can any amount of monetary compensation actually be sufficient to enable life satisfaction to remain unaffected while a person is mourning the loss of a loved one?