Thursday, August 07, 2008

I hope you're happy now...

In a intriguing series of posts on Freakonomics, Justin Wolfers looks at happiness inequality.  To my surprise, it is decreasing, even as income inequality is increasing.

What the hey?
Our key finding is that most of the movements in happiness inequality reflect changes in happiness inequality within even narrowly-defined demographic groups, and these changes are quite pervasive.

While this is a statistical explanation, it simply begs the question: What changes could have narrowed happiness inequality so pervasively? And juxtaposing our observed trends in happiness inequality with measures of income inequality — which have pretty much risen for the past four decades in a row — presents a real puzzle. How might we reconcile these trends?

Our sense is that there may be important trends in the non-pecuniary domain that have had a major equalizing effect. But once you start thinking about the possibilities, the list of suspects is pretty long: what has happened to leisure, to family life, to religiosity, to communities, to notions of procedural fairness, belief in the American Dream, or to personal freedoms? Could these changes yield a more equal distribution of happiness. And how could we test these theories?

At this point, our research has simply documented the facts about the evolution of U.S. happiness, and Betsey and I are yet to dig into the bigger question of why. So let me ask: What do you think explains these trends in happiness inequality? [More]

This certainly calls for serious pondering for this casual student of both happiness and economics.  Like the commenters on above post, I think the possible explanation lies in the much awaited exit of Baby Boomers as the dominant cultural cohort. We were (and are) the most avaricious and self-obsessed group in modern history, and many of these questionable values thankfully have diminished in succeeding generations.

Concern with constantly getting ahead creates expectations that alter our present happiness levels. This is the unfortunate side of ambition and perhaps one key to the possibility we may not see the kinds of economic growth rates produced by pushy Boomers in the last two decades. Our children may be more uniformly happy because they are not as driven, regardless how crazy it makes us Boomers.

Indeed, at first glance at least, the engine of entrepreneurship in the US could be dependent on immigrants still strongly focused on getting ahead. This appears true in higher education - the most efficient ladder of achievement, at least.

I wonder what the subset of farmers would look like - especially now.  Lacking any horizontal data (over time) it would be hard to draw conclusions.  This is one great failing I believe of farm media and organization: consistent ongoing measurement of attitudes underlying the culture of farming.   We make far too many assumptions about what policies and economic factors will produce satisfaction and well-being on farms, with little or no factual basis.

Obviously, relying on economic data alone won't describe the quality of our lives.


Anonymous said...

as long as I don't think about debt farming ain't to bad now and the debt isn't to bad, other than being there.

Greg ONeill said...

Here's another way of thinking about why happiness may be rising in an aging society, that is, a society with a growing proportion of older adults: