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How Happy Is America?

Feb 8, 2013
Originally published on February 8, 2013 12:28 pm

In recent years, Canada, France and Britain have added measures of citizen happiness to their official national statistics. The U.S. government is now considering adopting a happiness index as well.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Everything a government does — hiring soldiers, building bridges, providing pensions — is supposed to make citizens happy.

Economists and psychologists have been collecting happiness data for decades. They can quantify how unhappy noise pollution makes people who live near an airport. They know that people hate commuting and that we get less anxious as we get older.

But once you get into the details, there's a lot of debate over the happiness data. One big divide: Should you ask people how they're feeling right now, or how they feel about their life in general?

You get different answers depending on what you ask. Which one is more important is a squishy, philosophical question.

It turns out, though, that lots of economic data get squishy when you take a close look.

In the U.S, in order to be counted as unemployed, you have to be out of a job and looking for work. But what counts as looking for work? Checking Craigslist? Sending out three resumes a week? Five?

"It's actually kind of a hard question," says Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan. "It's very subjective."

Yet every month, a single unemployment number is released. Unemployment is now 7.9 percent. And, right now, a panel is looking to come up with a similar number for happiness. Someday soon, we may start hearing news reports about how U.S. happiness is rising. Or falling.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When people ask how a country is doing, the first thing you often hear about is the state of the economy. An important measurement is the GDP, gross domestic product, but some countries are interested in measuring something else: happiness. Canada, France and Britain have recently added happiness to their official national statistics. The nation of Bhutan has been gauging happiness for decades. And this year, the United States is thinking of joining this club.

Chana Joffe-Walt with our Planet Money team wanted to better understand how a happiness index works.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: When you think about it, everything a government does - provides security, services, bridges, schools - the underlying goal of all of it is to make citizens happy - at least you'd hope it is. And you hear politicians make this pitch all the time, that some new airport or bridge is what the people want. This park will make people happy. Justin Wolfers - an economist at the University of Michigan - says: You want to know what those claims are based on?

JUSTIN WOLFERS: Intuition's the polite word, and making it up is the impolite word.

JOFFE-WALT: The thing is, economists and psychologists have been collecting happiness data for decades now, data that could be really useful to governments. They can quantify how unhappy noise pollution makes people who live near an airport. They know that people hate commuting - ranks really high on the list of things we hate - that we get less anxious as we get older. In fact, both Justin Wolfers and Angus Deaton - an economist at Princeton who also studies happiness - told me with just a few personal details, they could tell me how happy I am.

Deaton started with my age, 31 years old.

ANGUS DEATON: You're on the downslope, and things will get - a bit better after you're about 40.

JOFFE-WALT: Justin Wolfers agreed with that assessment.

WOLFERS: Are you married?

JOFFE-WALT: Yes.

WOLFERS: Married people are happier than non-married people. Do you have children?

JOFFE-WALT: I have one child, and one on the way.

WOLFERS: I'll say both congratulations, and from your happiness perspective, I'm sorry to hear that.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLFERS: Parents report, on average, being less happy than non-parents.

DEATON: But that's under dispute.

JOFFE-WALT: And here is where the happiness data gets complicated. There's a dispute about whether or not kids make us unhappy, and truthfully, there's dispute about a lot of happiness data, because there's a problem with how we measure happiness.

WOLFERS: The standard is, actually, just to go out and ask people. It could how happy are you today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm okay. I'm not, like, overjoyed, but I'm okay.

JOFFE-WALT: Well, happiness is relative.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm in a relatively positive mood right now.

JOFFE-WALT: But if you change the question...

WOLFERS: So it turns out we get very different answers when we ask people about the here and now, rather than about evaluation their life so far.

JOFFE-WALT: With that one, you get more positive answers. So if you're a government, which question do you ask? Not to mention that Tony Fusing(ph), Eugenie Karakas(ph) and Michael Mary are human, flawed human beings, easily biased by the wording of your question, the bad sandwich they just ate or the fact that they found a nickel on the ground right before you asked the question - that one's actually been studied, by the way.

People who found a nickel before the questioning did report being happier. Having this data is value-laden. It's subjective. It's a little bit squishy. But you know what else is? GDP, unemployment data. Wolfers says: What is happiness? What is unemployment?

WOLFERS: Do you know how we measure unemployment? We go out and ask people if they're unemployed. Do you know how we measure happiness? We go out and we ask people if they're happy. Now, some people say, oh, but whether you're unemployed, that's objective. We can verify that. It's actually kind of a hard question, and it's very subjective.

JOFFE-WALT: In the U.S., we define being unemployed as looking for work. What is looking for work? Checking Craigslist? Sending out three resumes a week, five? But we report that number every month. Unemployment is 7.8 percent. And right now, the panel in the U.S. is looking to come up with a similar number for happiness. So we could say something like happiness rose by 3.6 percent last quarter. Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.