Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study

Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study

Getting richer does not make a country happier in the long run, according to the largest-ever review of the links between a nation’s wealth and the wellbeing of its citizens.

The researchers looked at life satisfaction data from 37 countries collected over various time periods, from 12 to 34 years, up to 2005. The sample included nations that are developed and developing, rich and poor, ex-Communist and capitalist.

It was specifically designed to test the paradox that although people in richer countries tend to be happier on average, as a country gets richer its inhabitants don’t necessarily become happier.

The lead author of the paper, economist Richard Easterlin of the University of South California, has been studying the concept of national happiness since the 1970s, when he formulated his “Easterlin Paradox“.

“Simply stated, the happiness-income paradox is this: at a point in time both among and within countries, happiness and income are positively correlated,” he said. “But, over time, happiness does not increase when a country’s income increases.”

Until now, the long-term statistics looking at links between wellbeing and GDP have been limited to developed countries. Easterlin’s study brings in developing countries and his conclusions rebut claims by other researchers over the past decade that national happiness can indeed increase (pdf) in line with wealth.

Easterlin says that any ups and downs measured by these recent studies are simply the short-term effects of, for example, economic collapse and recovery in individual countries. He says they do not seem to hold up over the long term _ã_ typically more than 10 years.

“With incomes rising so rapidly in [certain] countries, it seems extraordinary that no surveys register the marked improvement in subjective wellbeing that mainstream economists and policy makers worldwide expect to find,” he said.

In the paper, Easterlin cites surveys from Chile, China and South Korea. In these countries, per capita income has doubled in less than 20 years but overall happiness does not seem to have followed the same path. In China and Chile, there appeared to be small drops in life satisfaction, but the numbers were not statistically significant. For South Korea there was a modest, again not statistically significant, increase in life satisfaction in the early 1980s, but it declined slightly from 1990 to 2005.

The results, he said, were “strikingly consistent”: over the long term, the sense of wellbeing in a country’s citizens did not go up with income. His work is published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Where does this leave us? If economic growth is not the main route to greater happiness, what is?” said Easterlin. “We may need to focus policy more directly on urgent personal concerns relating to things such as health and family life, rather than on the mere escalation of material goods.”