August 19, 2008

(Un)Happiness dissected and quantified

I have blogged about happiness a few times before -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 -- but it is amazing how many have tried to analyze, dissect, and quantify happiness, a state of being, in the last few years.

In the last few decades, people have tried to quantify happiness through Felicific calculus and indexing the happiness levels and quality of life in various countries through the Human Development Index and the Well-Being Index.

In the last couple years, the Freakanomics blog has had a number of 'experts' on the subject further dissecting data from these indices and from other surveys. I'll link only to the 2008 posts here; 2007 had its own share of posts that explored the link worldwide between
Health, Wealth and Happiness!

In April-May this year, Arthur Brooks, author of the recent book, Gross National Happiness, caught a lot of attention with his opinion that
Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, arrived at from his analysis of several sources of non-partisan survey data. In subsequent posts he explored the reasons for this large, persistent “happiness gap” favored the political right viz. religion* and where d view matters. Apparently, even Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman, who has pioneered happiness measurement techniques, thinks that conservatives think the world is fairer than liberals do, and this makes them happy.

a fourth piece, instead of bucketing people into liberal-vs-conservatives, Brooks looks at moderates vs. people on the extremes. The result of his analysis may surprise you.

A happiness edge enjoyed by the extremes persists even if we control for the other relevant forces like income, education, race, religion, and so on.

In a fifth post, he explored the reasons why zealots are happier than people with moderate views!

To review, then: Extremists may be the happiest people on both the left and right. But as a general rule, they don’t like you — unless you agree with them.

Being by no means extreme in any of my viewpoints, I now know the source of my apparent discontent. :) More seriously, I think this goes back to the paper I just blogged about and has to do with being content and ignorant in our biases and our perceptions of others but being supremely confident and arrogant about ourselves. If that is what it takes to be happy, no wonder I am anything but.

There has also been a series of articles on the subject by Justin Wolfers but I do not have the time right now to read them all - so will just link to them here, if any one is interested.

Happiness Inequality #3: Putting It All Together
Happiness Inequality #2: Differences Between Groups
Happiness Inequality #1: The Facts
The Economics of Happiness, Part 6: Delving Into Subjective Well-Being
The Economics of Happiness, Part 5: Will Raising the Incomes of All Raise the Happiness of All?
The Economics of Happiness, Part 4: Are Rich People Happier than Poor People?
The Economics of Happiness, Part 3: Historical Evidence
The Economics of Happiness, Part 2: Are Rich Countries Happier than Poor Countries?
The Economics of Happiness, Part 1: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox

Wolfers's recent research with Betsey Stevenson has been recently published as a journal paper, Happiness Inequality in the United States, and is downloadable here. The paper has been summarized here. (Justin and Betsey, who happen to be partners and are both economists at Wharton, have also studied and analyzed the institution of marriage through the lens of economics. You can read some of their Freakanomics posts on the subject, if interested. Happiness of married vs. unmarried people is a whole other topic, which I am not interested in getting into here.)

* On a related note, I found this in comments section of
a post at Econlog. :)

"atheists are disproportionately rich and educated, have higher intelligence, and are overrepresented among elites."

Aah...nice to know. I'm disproportionately rich and educated, very intelligent, elitist...and unhappy! ;)

Update: Forget everything I wrote about in this post so far. I just read something that has one sentence that probably is all we need to know about happiness.
Seth Godin
writes about destroying happiness:

A journalist asked me, Most people have a better standard of living today than Louis XIV did in his day. So why are so many people unhappy?

What you have doesn't make you unhappy. What you want does.

And want is created by us, the marketers.

Marketers trying to grow market share will always work to make their non-customers unhappy. It's interesting to note that marketers trying to maintain market share have a lot of work to do in reminding us that we're happy.

My post is not to highlight the unique way Seth Godin categorizes marketers but to highlight the italicized sentence (his emphasis) about what makes us (un)happy and what does not. It sounds cliched but actually encompasses a deep truism that many of us tacitly understand but likely find very hard to utilize in the way we live our lives.

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