NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 11, 2007

In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin pointed out that beyond a certain point -- presumably when people's basic needs for food, shelter, public order and work are met -- greater wealth does not generate more national happiness.  The America of 2007 is far richer than the America of 1977. Life expectancy is 78 years, up from 74 years.  Our homes are bigger and crammed with more paraphernalia (microwave ovens, personal computers, flat-panel TVs).  But happiness is stuck, says columnist Robert Samuelson.

  • In 1977, 35.7 percent of Americans rated themselves "very happy," 53.2 percent "pretty happy" and 11 percent "not too happy," reports the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
  • In 2006, the figures are similar: 32.4 percent "very happy," 55.9 percent "pretty happy" and 11.7 percent "not too happy."
  • Likewise, in most advanced countries, self-reported happiness has been flat for decades.

Hordes of scholars are asking why.  According to Samuelson, there are two underlying causes:

  • First, economic insecurity has increased and companies are quicker to fire.
  • Median job tenure for men age 45 to 54 dropped from about 13 years in 1983 to eight years in 2006, reports economist Rob Valletta of the San Francisco Fed.
  • Second, Americans compare the present with the immediate past.
  • The economic boom of the late 1990s conditioned people to expect a blissful future. Clearly, that hasn't arrived and people are disappointed because reality doesn't match the promise.

The popularity of happiness research suggests that economists and other social scientists think they can devise public policies to elevate the nation's feel-good quotient.  This is an illusion.  Happiness depends heavily on individual character and national culture, says Samuelson.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "The Bliss We Can't Buy," Washington Post, July 11, 2007.

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