Saturday, May 13, 2006

Wealth, education, and occupational prestige do not predict happiness, but a good family life does: I've listed below those factors that best predict feeling that your life is a very happy one (according to GSS data):

Correlations between various factors and personal happiness
1. Being happily married .48
2. Satisfied with family life .34
3. Satisifed with friendships .31
4. Satisified with one's health .27
5. One's overall health .25
6. Satisfied with job .22
7. Feeling that things are worthwhile .22

If people have high scores on all these predictors, about 90% of them are very happy. Indicators of social status--income, education, job prestige--are only weakly related to being happy. I hate to concede that any wisdom can be found in Hollywood, but the popular message that a guy should invest in family over career seems to make sense.


  1. Except that self-describes happiness is a worthless measure of well-being. The two countries in the world with the highest score are Porto Rico and Mexico! Columbia is pretty high to. France, Germany, Italy are at the buttom.

    These measures are largely a ration of expectation and outcome, as well as dependent on general personal inclination to be easily pleased (so be really careful with correlation vs. causality here, a person who describes themselves as happy with everything may just have a good disposition).

  2. Where do you get those rankings from? When I looked at national survey data, northern European countries ranked at the top of the list. Happiness is subjective--I see no better measure of something subjective than with a subjective answer. I have been unhappy in my life and would have said precisely this on a survey, and I have been happy too and my answer would have been totally valid, albeit changing as life changes.

  3. World Value Survey, 2004. It is a combination of happiness and life satisfaction scores (the fact that the two give different rankings should tell us something...)

    Actually only Denmark scores higher than the US in life satisfaction, other European nations lower. Something you can also see from here:

    Puerto Rico 4.67
    Mexico 4.32
    Denmark 4.24
    Ireland 4.16
    Switzerland 4
    N. Ireland 3.97
    Colombia 3.94
    Netherlands 3.86
    Canada 3.76
    Austria 3.69
    El Salvador 3.67
    Venezuela 3.58
    Luxembourg 3.52
    U.S. 3.47
    Australia 3.46
    New Zealand 3.39
    Sweden 3.36
    Nigeria 3.32
    Norway 3.25
    Belgium 3.23
    Finland 3.23
    Saudi Arabia 3.01
    Singapore 3
    Britain 2.92
    W. Germany 2.67
    France 2.61

    Happiness may be subjectve, but there are better measures of well being. The best measure should be based on choice: If people rather live in Germany than El Salvador given the choice that is a better measure than happiness.

    Must importantly Happiness includes expectations. If a well off American doesn't get a promotion this year he may be unhappy, an kidd in Darfur finding a sack of beans may be very happy. Who would you rather be?

  4. PS.

    The list goes on longer, 82 countries in all.

  5. PPS

    Netherlands scores lower in the Harris poll (44% vs 58% for US) but higher in the Value survey. One reason may also be how they weight "very happy" and "happy".

    The US tends to have many who say "very happy", polls that weight that high give you a better score.

    Other north west europeans (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Belgium etc) score lower than US.

  6. Thanks for the data and the link--very interesting. One pattern that emerges is that southern Europe ranks low. We're really talking about three things here: happiness, life satisfaction, and objective well-being. The GSS asks about overall happiness, so they seem to be measuring an emotional state that a person feels on average. I point I drew from the numbers is that this emotional state is only weakly related to the things we might expect--indicators of status. I think your numbers also show that this emotional state is weakly related at a national level to objective conditions: many Third World countries report greater happiness than developed countries. People are clearly better off in wealthier countries, but this does not necessarily translate into the emotional state we call happiness. Of course, it's good to have all the things that come with prospertity and status, but it is also good--and ultimately more important in my mind--to be happy.

    And you are right that happiness is influenced by perception and by disposition. You make a very good point that the correlation between a satisfying family life and general happiness could be due to naturally happy people reporting both and naturally unhappy people reporting neither. So I guess the moral here is that if you cannot change your disposition, maybe you can become happier by changing your priorities.

  7. I'm skeptical of happiness comparisons between countries, less so between individuals within the same country. It's easy to imagine that some cultures encourage people to put on happy face, while others may discourage too much public rejoicing over one's own good fortune.

    So a Finn who reports himself as moderately gloomy might be just as happy as an American claiming to be moderately cheerful. But self-reportedly cheerful Finns are probably happier than self-reportedly gloomy Finns, at least if we ignore the laughing-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside cases.


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