I was discussing the economics of happiness with my son, and in particular the Easterlin paradox. Within a given country, people with higher incomes are more likely to report being happy. However, in international comparisons, the average reported level of happiness does not vary much with national income per person, at least for countries with income sufficient to meet basic needs. The same is true over time – average happiness levels don’t change much even as incomes rise.
This is often taken to mean that it’s relative rather than absolute income that determines happiness, so an increase in everyone’s income won’t make anyone happier. Hence, we shouldn’t worry so much about increasing income, but should focus more on factors likely to contribute to happiness. The point that struck me was that, given Easterlin’s data, the paradox is almost certain to apply whatever potential source of happiness we consider, in one form or another.
Let’s consider religious belief, for example and suppose that, in national surveys religious belief is correlated with (self-reported) happiness. But we know that countries differ widely in religiosity and not much in average happiness, so presumably it’s relative religiosity that makes you happy. In Australia, perhaps, going to church at Christmas and Easter is enough, while in the US maybe you have to go every week and pray daily as well. And of course, proselytising is a zero-sum game, since every convert reduces the relative religiosity of existing believers.
Of course, there may be sources of happiness for which there isn’t much variation across countries or over time, so that the generalized Easterlin paradox doesn’t apply. But if something has been observed to be constant across countries and over time (even though people have a very good reason to want more of it), it seems likely that it’s hard to change.
Overall, this leads me to think that the main implication from the happiness research program is one of stoic acceptance of the world as it is. Not being much of a stoic, I tend to the view that we should promote improvements in health, wealth and other good things, and let people take care of their own happiness. As Spike Milligan didn’t quite say “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it does buy a better class of unhappiness”.