Wednesday, March 24


From Elizabeth Kolbert's review of Derek Bok's “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being”:

...the incomes of the country’s top earners have, in recent decades, grown several times as fast as those of the earners at the bottom. But the statistics show that, over the past few decades, the subjective well-being of those at the bottom has remained unchanged. If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?

“The most obvious reason for deploring income inequality is our instinctive sympathy for those who must make do with many fewer goods and services,” he observes. “It is not immediately clear, however, why growing inequality should elicit such compassion if lower-income Americans themselves have not become less happy.”

So much for policy to alleviate economic equality. Because job loss leads to unhappiness, Bok, trained as a lawyer, wants more generous unemployment benefits, apparently assuming they'd make people happier. But would they?

Kolbert also discusses Carol Graham's “Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires”:

[Nigeria]’s per-capita G.D.P. last year was about fourteen hundred dollars. (In real terms, this is significantly lower than it was when the nation declared its independence, in 1960.) Yet the proportion of Nigerians who rate themselves happy is as high as the proportion of Japanese, whose per-capita G.D.P. is almost twenty-five times as great. The percentage of Bangladeshis who report themselves satisfied is twice as high as the percentage of Russians, though Russians are more than four times as rich, and the proportion of happy Panamanians is twice as high as that of happy Argentines, though the Argentines have double the income. Research that Graham has done in Afghanistan shows that, despite three decades of war and widespread destitution, Afghans are, on average, a pretty cheerful lot. (The most cheerful areas of the country tend to be those in which the Taliban’s influence is stronger.) Graham’s research in Latin America shows that the very poor are often remarkably upbeat. “Higher per capita income levels do not translate directly into higher average happiness levels,” she writes.

So much for our war in Afghanistan.

Also, Jean Kazez notes,
[A] study of 90,000 people across 26 European countries...found that "to belong to a religion is positively correlated with life satisfaction." You can see how that might be. Belonging increases the chances of believing. And believing increases optimism ("God will provide, protect, prevent, etc."), which is strongly correlated with greater happiness.

Now here's the surprising part. Everyone is more satisfied with life in areas that are more religious, including the atheists. And everyone is less satisfied in places with more atheists. "Having a higher proportion of atheists has a negative spillover effect for the religious and for atheists alike." Apparently, to some considerable extent, our attitudes about life are held collectively. We don't individualistically base our outlook simply on the beliefs lodged within our own skulls.

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