What Makes People Happy?

“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For centuries, great minds have tried to answer the question: “What makes people happy?” As the field of economics became increasingly analytical, it began to see earnings as a symbol for human welfare. The concept of “maximizing utility” (getting the most use from goods or services) came to depend on income measures, but money isn’t always the best indicator of what people want. For example, some people choose less remunerative work that is more satisfying and feel quite content. Modern happiness economics broadens the definition of “utility.” It measures social groupings, demographics, employment status, political environments, economic resources and the availability of public services to amass a comprehensive picture of what constitutes contentment in a country. These measurements facilitate global comparisons.

Worldwide, health is the major variable that influences joy, even more than money. Contented people are healthier, and healthy people are more content. In the developed nations of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the higher the blood pressure, the lower the happiness level, and vice versa, indicating a “virtuous happiness and health circle.” Similar to the joy-to-income ratio, happiness doesn’t grow beyond a certain level of healthiness. Gains in hygiene and medical care have a compelling impact on health and even survival (for example, available clean water means lower infant mortality). In higher-income populations, advances in science, not income, bring bigger strides in battling the illnesses that are more common in richer nations. Income and health care satisfaction are not correlated across nations: More Kenyans (by percentage of population) than Americans are content with their health. In fact, the U.S. scores 81st among 115 nations (lower than India, Malawi and Sierra Leone) in “public confidence in the health system.” Mental illness takes a greater toll on joy than physical ailments do. In the U.S. and Russia, “obese people are, on average, less happy than the non-obese.” But the levels of dissatisfaction relating to weight depend on your social group and location, since norms vary widely. In the U.S., poor minorities are less worried about being heavy than rich whites. Obesity affects mental health in that overweight people are likelier to suffer depression.

If happy people worldwide, “from war-torn Afghanistan to new democracies like Chile and established ones like the United Kingdom,” are glad for the same core reasons, what does that mean for public policy? Happiness ratings could become indicators of human advancement, much as GDP measures economies. In fact, the U.K. and France are already investigating ways to incorporate “national well-being accounts” into their policy considerations. The government of Bhutan currently computes “gross national happiness” statistics as substitutes for GDP. The idea of using happiness scores in governance faces three main obstacles:

1. The level of adaptation in human endeavor, “upward and downward,” may distort perceptions: If you tolerate crime and corruption in a society rife with them, what is your incentive to fix those problems?

2. Governments must determine how to respond to the happy peasant anomaly: Should they make cheerful poor people aware of their misery, raise their income until they become sad, or just let them remain poor and cheery?

3. “Cardinality versus ordinality” in happiness surveys doesn’t allow for distinctions between levels of sadness and joy, so is it better to make a blissful person happier, or a joyless individual happy? Since most research suggests that happier people enjoy better health, jobs and relationships, perhaps the best policy would seek to abolish or minimize unhappiness.