Further to last week’s post . . .

Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois and the Gallup Organization, and Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania have assembled a stunningly complete review of the disparities between economic indicators, on the one hand, and trends in how happy and satisfied in life people are, on the other. An uncorrected proof of their article, which is slated for publication later this year, is posted here in pdf.

This field of research has exploded in the dozen years since I wrote about it in How Much Is Enough? It’s exciting to see all the new research.

“Over the past 50 years, income has climbed steadily in the United States, with the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita tripling, and yet life satisfaction has been virtually flat,” as you can see in the graph below. Similar trends are evident in other industrial nations. Depression and mental illness have also soared, on which I’ll post separately.

  • The article’s purpose is to argue for a system of national well-being accounts to complement the economic “national accounts” system that generates such statistics as GDP. Employed as a proxy for the “pursuit of happiness,” the economic accounts are grossly misleading.

    The article is long and unfortunately dense. Here are some highlights:

    “Across nations, there are diminishing returns for increasing wealth above U.S. $10,000 per capita income; above that level, there are virtually no increases or only small increases in well-being. Moreover, health, quality of government, and human rights all correlate with national wealth, and when these variables are statistically controlled, the effect of income on national well-being becomes nonsignificant.” (Growth itself, in other words, obeys the law of dimishing marginal returns.)

    “In rich nations, more and more income has been required over time to remain at the same level of well-being.” (Keeping up with the Joneses.)

    Well-being is closely associated with social capital-with social engagement and trust in others. Social isolation is closely associated with unhappiness. Being with others is not just about getting support. In fact, giving service to others is more closely associated with well-being than is receiving support. (To give is better than to receive.)

    Within a society, richer people report being happier than poorer people. But they’re no happier than the much-poorer elites of poor countries, nor than the much-poorer rich of bygone years. And other factors are far more important to happiness than income, as the mind-boggling table below illustrates. In fact, materialistic values-which tend to correlate with high incomes-are corrosive to happiness: materialistic individuals end up with “lower self-esteem and greater narcissism, greater amounts of social comparison, and less empathy, less intrinsic motivation, and more conflictual relationships.”

    Compared with less-happy people, happy people earn more money (happiness buys money, even if money doesn’t always buy happiness). They also have stronger immune resistance to cold and flu viruses (think positive!), suffer fewer fatal accidents (good karma), and live longer lives (nine years longer, in one study).

    The authors offer a partial formula for high well-being
    “Live in a democratic and stable society that provides material resources to meet needs
    “Have supportive friends and family [they specifically mention marriage as a huge plus for well-being]
    “Have rewarding and engaging work and an adequate income
    “Be reasonably healthy and have treatment available in case of mental problems
    “Have important goals related to one’s values
    “Have a philosophy or religion that provides guidance, purpose, and meaning to one’s life”

    At last, the wisdom of the ages has been confirmed empirically, at the 95 percent confidence interval!

    Seriously, the implications of this research are profound and far-reaching. At bare minimum, it reinforces my hope that well-being monitoring will some day be feasible in the Cascadia Scorecard. Over the long haul, it offers a set of indicators of human quality of life that could put into proper perspective such irrelevancies as the Dow and such statistical parlor tricks as the consumer confidence index.