Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Happiness at the FT

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, January 21, 2010 | Category: , |

Julian Baggini reviews a few recent books on Happiness Research at the Financial Times.  I think that most laypeople interested in the subject would benefit from reading the article, particularly how it uses the reviews together to debunk several odd claims that people make when dealing with the happiness or subjective well-being literature.  However, Baggini does not call out the author of one of the books, Carol Graham, on her claim that increasing wealth does not correlate (or maybe even result in) higher happiness.  In economics, many researchers have shown that higher income correlates with higher happiness or subjective well-being is demonstrated several times over (though some argue not). One of the problems seems to be that some researchers don't observe the happiness-income relationship because they fail to control for other potential correlates with happiness: work hours, time with friends, participatory social time qua social capital, and others., we know that, in general, a person's relative income level correlates more strongly with their level of happiness much more strongly than their absolute income level. So even if money makes you happier, being wealthier than others makes you even happier.  Think about it in the following way. consider two people Al and Bob.  If both Al and Bob get a pay increase, they both end up happier.  But, if Bob's pay increase is greater than Al's then Bob is even happier than Al is because his income is relatively higher (other things equal).  One of the other things to consider though is what economist call 'non-linearities' in happiness, i.e. if Al and Bob were both leaving beneath the poverty line and we unemployed, getting them both income that takes them above the poverty line makes them both substantially happier than a similar increase would at higher levels of income.  To simplify it a lot, happiness may be increasing in income, but at a decreasing rate, or it may even plateau.  Ideological debates enter here with people emphasising inequality vs. growth consistent with their philosophical preferences.

Notwithstanding this economic/political blip (or the failure to nod to the other side of the camp), I agree with several of the points that Baggini made.  His main conclusion - that we must not confound ourselves by emphasizing happiness only and dropping truth and liberty from our considerations of success - warrants further support and investigation and is a research program I am happy that many researchers will continue to investigate. 

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