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Friday, September 18, 2009

Well-Being Vs. Happiness

One thing that does strike me as interesting from the AEA survey, which Robert Whaples (author) also finds interesting in his concluding remarks:

"However, “happiness” does not seem to mean the same thing as “well
being”—and the vast majority of economists (88 percent) are optimistic that
continued economic growth in economies like the U.S. does yield ever greater
levels of well being."


Indeed, when asked if "Economic growth in developed countries like the U.S. leads to greater levels of happiness", nearly 20% thought not. However, when asked if "Economic growth in developed countries like the U.S. leads to greater levels of well-being", only 3% thought not.

This actually makes sense to me. Many people conflate the two terms: happiness and well-being. But while they might be similar if not identical concepts, they are different things from a measurement perspective. And because economists are so data-driven (likely too much so), most probably look at data that suggests happiness isn't really affected by income over time and go with that. The problem is, that is likely a problem with measuring happiness, not a real effect.

Well-being can be measured by things like health, levels of education, life-expectancy and can be compared across nations and across time. Happiness, while presumable directly linked with well-being, is a purely subject measure from a group of people at a given point in time.

So consider my doppleganger that existed in 1920. He wasn't expected to live as long as me today, he didn't have the same availability of quality education, technology, health services. By all measures, his level of well-being was lower. But the problem is, he only lives once and only in one timeframe. The only way he can self-reportedly measure his own happiness is against those of his contemporaries. So, let's say he rates himself a 4 out of 5.

Now consider me, today. Thanks to economic growth, my well-being has increased (I have better technologies, I can expect to live longer, etc). But I have the same problem as my doppleganger because I too cannot compare myself across time. I certainly cannot judge my happiness level today on how happy or unhappy my doppleganger had it 80 years ago - I have no idea what his happiness was like back then. I can only judge how happy I am, as my doppleganger did, by comparing my present condition across my present contemporaries and across my real history (how happy I was yesterday). I too rate myself a 4.

So, my well-being has increased, but my happiness hasn't - or rather, it probably HAS... I just have no way of measuring that when I do a survey.

It is for this reason that studies that try to measure self-reported happiness, in my opinion, do so in vain. To the degree that measures of happiness does change over time, I suspect it really reflects large societal cultural changes - changes in race or sex relations, changes in social norms etc....

28 comments:

karim said...

A valuable post on happiness

Thanks,
Karim - Mind Power

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The only way he can self-reportedly measure his own happiness is against those of his contemporaries. So, let's say he rates himself a 4 out of 5.

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