21 Jan 2019

How would you explain the finding that people in high-income economies seem happier than people in low-income economies, but, over time, people in high-income economies do not seem to be any happier even if their country grows richer? Briefly discuss.

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Income and Happiness

The Declaration of Independence in 1776 identified “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This did not guarantee happiness but did establish the pursuit of happiness as an “unalienable” right, meaning that right cannot be taken away, given away, or sold. Eighteenth century philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham argued that government policy should promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Many people today apparently agree. In recent polls, 77 percent of Australians and 81 percent of Brits believed that a government's prime objective should be promoting the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth. The United Nations in 2007 sponsored an international conference on “Happiness and Public Policy.” Thailand now compiles a monthly Gross Domestic Happiness Index. Even China has joined in the fun reporting a happiness index based on polling results about living conditions, income, the environment, social welfare, and employment. Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are also developing happiness indexes.

Economists have long shied away from asking people how they feel, preferring instead to observe their behavior. But more now see some value in asking questions. In the most extensive of polls, the Gallup organization asked people in 130 countries: “How satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of zero to ten?” The results, reported in 2007, are not surprising. Most people in the high income areas, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan, said they are happy. Most people in the poor areas, especially in Africa, said they are not. Also, within a given country, income and happiness are positively related. After evaluating all the results of the Gallup world poll, Angus Deaton of Princeton concluded: “The very strong international relationship between per capita GDP and life satisfaction suggests that, on average, people have a good idea of how income, or the lack of it, affects their lives.” 8

So these results are no surprise. What does puzzle economists is that other surveys suggest that in affluent countries people do not seem any happier over time even though each generation became richer than the last. For example, in the United States, the proportion of people who say they are happy has stayed about the same despite 60 years of economic growth. In Japan, happiness responses actually declined despite a substantial increase in real income over the last 50 years.

Here are two possible explanations. First, people begin taking for granted those luxuries they most desired. For example, two generations ago color TVs, automobiles, and major appliances were luxuries, but now they are must-items for most households. Computers and flat screen HDTVs will soon move from luxuries to necessities. As each generation attains a higher standard of living, people become less sensitive to the benefits, they take them for granted, and thus they say they are no happier.

Second, research suggests that what matters is not just the absolute level of income but income relative other people in the reference group. Imagine you have a choice between (1) earning $50,000 a year while others in your reference group make $25,000 or (2) earning $100,000 a year while others make $250,000 (suppose, too, that prices remain the same, so $100,000 is double the real income of $50,000). Which would you prefer? Studies show that when people face this hypothetical choice, most pick the $50,000 option. That is, they prefer to make more than others even if that means a lower real income. Thus, if all incomes rise on average over time, this does not affect that aspect of happiness linked to one’s relative standing. As the social critic H. L. Mencken long ago observed, "A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife's sister's husband."

SOURCES: Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness, (New York: Knopf, 2006); Marina Kamenev, “Rating Countries for the Happiness Factor,” Business Week, 11 October 2006; Angus Deaton, “Income, Aging, Health, and Wellbeing Around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll,” Princeton Working Paper, (August 2007); and “Where Money Seems to Talk,” Economist, 12 July 200

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Nestor Rutherford
Nestor RutherfordLv2
22 Jan 2019

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