Comparing books on happiness

A recent New Yorker carries an article comparing a few books on happiness research. Folks are baffled by the fact that GDP per person has risen in the U.S. but reported happiness has not. One explanation not considered is that the government is now consuming a much larger share of GDP and the government tends to spend money in ways that don’t make people happy, e.g., by starting expensive wars, by imposing burdensome paperwork requirements on millions of people, etc.

[One bright spot in this research is “Afghans are, on average, a pretty cheerful lot. (The most cheerful areas of the country tend to be those in which the Taliban’s influence is stronger.)” So the U.S. government hasn’t managed to ruin everyone’s party!]


  1. Hubbert

    April 27, 2010 @ 6:27 pm


    I agree that materialism isn’t everything. But per capita GDP is the wrong economic measure. medain GDP/person/hour or median WAGES/person/hour are better statistics:
    1. Median: Increase in wealth has mostly gone to top 2% (Jack Welch’s golfing buddies)

    2. Increase in productivity hasn’t shown up in wages (compare Eric Rauch’s productivity data with wage data):

    3. Dividing by hours is important: so what if Americans earn 35% more than Germans if we have to work 70% more hours to get there?

    We should probably also compare various degree levels also to account for degree inflation.

  2. Matthew Lock

    April 27, 2010 @ 11:37 pm


    How comparable are subjective happiness measurements across different countries and time anyway?

    Plus increase in GDP is not the only thing that has changed over time in the US. Other things such as practising religion, sexual practices, wars etc might be the reason for differences in happiness rather than GDP changes?

  3. Edith Frederick

    April 28, 2010 @ 7:32 pm


    Although I appreciate The New Yorker I sped through this ditsy article that seemed to reveal most about the ditsy assumptions of the underlying research. Your astringent counterpoints provided relief … Another recent ditsy research article, in Scientific American, posited that sugar and fat may cause the same addictive changes in brain chemistry as hard drugs because rats consistently chose sugar and fat fare over “wholesome rat kibbles.” It was good for a merry laugh even as I wondered if standards for “research” are deteriorating.

    Happiness as it relates to economic and psychological indicators gets some thoughtful first-hand discussion on the “visit Denmark” portal:

    And people are invited to assess their personal happiness in good research company at

    “Dr. Martin Seligman is Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center and founder of Positive Psychology, a new branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms. The research underlying these rigorously tested interventions is presented in the July/August edition of the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychology Association.

    Authentic Happiness has almost 700,000 registered users around the world. You are welcome to use all of the resources on this website for free.”

  4. Dave

    April 29, 2010 @ 5:10 pm


    Once you get past the basic food and shelter, commonly cited factors in happiness are control over your own situation, close personal relationships with family and friends, and a purpose in life. None of these depend much on increased GDP or personal income. Like the old adage, money can’t buy happiness.

    But it could buy a helicopter gunship.

  5. Jerry Vandesic

    May 10, 2010 @ 7:25 pm


    I thought research found that after about $15K per person of income, happiness tends to plateau. I’m not sure how that figures into geographic differences, where places like Norway and Denmark have higher absolute happiness levels compared to the US. Maybe their happiness slope on the way to $15K was higher?

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