Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mortal Happiness

Martian happy face
Thomas Jefferson showed some insight when he listed among inalienable human rights “the pursuit of happiness.” Not happiness, mind you. He didn’t perceive any right to that: only to the pursuit of it.

That is just as well, since repeated surveys show that citizens of the nation he helped create have been growing unhappier for more than 40 years. This feels correct to me: I personally remember people smiling a lot more four decades ago than today. My anecdotal evidence has the support of the Harris Poll, among others. A few years ago a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research got quite a bit of press from its conclusion that women in the US are not only less happy than they were in the 1970s but are less happy than men – in the 1970s they self-reported as happier than men. Those who care about such differences may note that the gap has narrowed again. According to Professor Jean M. Twenge (well-known for her studies of Millennials), since 2010 men’s happiness has plummeted, too; so, now there is little difference between them and the gals.

All those statements are vast generalizations, of course. As always, there is a range of individual differences. There always are people who are cheery by nature or grumpy by nature, and no amount of fortune or misfortune seems to alter their fundamental dispositions. Yet there is such a thing as a zeitgeist, in which folks on average may be more or less cheery. There are also different kinds of happiness. Wealthy people (unsurprisingly) report themselves happier in a general way than do poor people in the same country. Yet if you ask “Are you happy today?” or “Were you happy yesterday?” there is no difference at all in the responses of the rich, the poor, or those in between. What the rich really mean when they report being generally happy is that that they feel more secure. Security is definitely a valuable thing, but it does not translate into day to day cheerfulness. On any given day a rich person is as likely to be depressed as a poor one, and we live day by day. Furthermore, the wealth effect works only within nations. Populations of wealthier countries do not self-report as happier than those of poorer ones. For what it’s worth, the cheeriest populations (on that daily basis) are in Central and South America. The US rank is 33, which frankly is higher than I would have guessed.

Studies led by Twenge of 1.3 million Americans from 1972 to 2014 indicate an age correlation to happiness, and it is one that has changed over time. Four decades ago happiness rose pretty steadily with age. No longer. Nowadays, Millennials under 30 are a cheerful bunch: they are the one group happier than their age-counterparts were in the 1970s. People over 65 are pretty happy, too, as they were then. Those in between, however, are more miserable than they ever have been. Twenge speculates that Millennials feel good about the high expectations instilled into them until they realize they won’t be met. While a substantial minority of Millennials do in fact wind up with extraordinary salaries and lifestyles, the majority underperform to put it mildly. Most of their lives turn out not so amazing after all, and they take it hard. The folks presently 30-65 (older Millennials, all Xers, and younger Boomers) have not had a good four decades, at least by their own judgment – and not just economically.

Twenge doesn’t much address the happiness of senior citizens, but the curious complacency of this group has attracted the attention of psychologists for over a century. One might think the nearness of death would make them fearful or depressed, but it doesn’t. My personal opinion (as someone who will be in the age category soon enough, thank you) is that this is related to Loss Aversion, which is the economic and psychological principle that people dislike losses far more than they like equivalent gains. This makes no sense in standard game theory, but it is how people behave. It is why stock market crashes happen in a matter of days (or hours) while booms are comparatively slow motion affairs lasting months or years: people scramble to sell in falling markets in order to limit their losses but buy much more hesitantly into a rising one. (“Animal spirits,” to use Greenspan’s term, do inflate bubbles, but bubbles rarely just deflate again: they pop.) We fret about potential losses, not only of property but of pride, social standing, friends, and so on. The key word is “potential”: we’re pretty good at accepting inevitable loss once we’re convinced it is in fact inevitable.

I remember a local judge back in the 1970s who was a friend of my dad. When diagnosed with terminal cancer he underwent a complete personality change. Formerly of conservative demeanor, he took to dressing in white suits, opining on art, and being a “character.” Why? Because he had nothing to lose. So what if anything he said or did damaged his career or his status? With a far bigger loss inevitable, the rest hardly mattered. He simply stopped giving a damn and was happier for it – for the 18 months or so he survived. Most seniors don’t have as clear-cut an expiration date as he had, but they know it isn’t so very far away. They don’t have as much reason to fear loss other than the inevitable one, so they worry less.

Are there any lessons in this for the unhappy 30-65 crowd? Yes. In the grand scheme of things, we aren’t here for much longer than our elders. Maybe that thought can help us not give a damn, too.


  1. I feel pretty happy most of the time. I know a lot of people who apparently are not. I figure it could always be worse. I'm curious to see the ranking of happiness, which countries fared better than the US, and why? I'm sure wealthy people endure sadness, depression, etc. like the rest of us, but damn I'd rather be rich sad.

    1. Some people have a rest state that is naturally unhappy, which is to say they are unhappy unless actively entertaining themselves. (These are at greater risk of substance abuse.) Other individuals have a happy rest state, which is to say they are happy unless bad things are happening to them. (These may spend too much time on the couch since they feel just fine there.) But, as a group, people do seem to be affected by the circumstances of their time and place – a shifting of the whole bell curve of individual differences one way or another.

      The national rankings are different depending on what questions the surveyors ask – in all too many cases what answers the surveyors sought. Politically motivated researchers sometimes structure their rankings in terms of their own biases, for example by including in their very definition of happiness either economic freedom or access to social services. Also, as in the case of the rich/poor comparison, there is a difference between day-to-day happiness and general contentment with life: the latter being, once again, a matter of security. Denmark, for example, always ranks high on contentment, but, while Danes are nice enough folks, “cheery” and “jovial” are not the adjectives that first come to mind when strolling in Copenhagen.

      When the researchers’ input is removed by simply asking people directly if they’re happy, the responses you get are closer to the way things appear to ordinary observers. A recent poll that asked this question of 150,000 people (a huge sample for a poll) around the world showed 7 of the 10 happiest countries to be in Latin America: Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, and the Philippines were the others in the top 10. Money and good governance apparently have little to do with it: wealthy, comfortable, pleasant, and well-managed Singapore (55 places above Panama in GDP per capita, 7 places above the USA, and my own preferred destination were I to move to another country) was at the bottom of the happiness list.