Happiness economics

Dismal science

An old paradox about growth and happiness lives on

PHILOSOPHERS FROM Aristotle to the Beatles have argued that money does not buy happiness. But it seems to help. Since 2005 Gallup, a pollster, has asked a representative sample of adults from countries across the world to rate their life satisfaction on a scale from zero to ten. The headline result is clear: the richer the country, on average, the higher the level of self-reported happiness. The simple correlation suggests that doubling GDP per person lifts life satisfaction by about 0.7 points.

Yet the prediction that as a country gets richer its mood will improve has a dubious record. In 1974 Richard Easterlin, an economist, discovered that average life satisfaction in America had stagnated between 1946 and 1970 even as GDP per person had grown by 65% over the same period. He went on to find a similar disconnect in other places, too. Although income is correlated with happiness when looking across countries—and although economic downturns are reliable sources of temporary misery—long-term GDP growth does not seem to be enough to turn the average frown upside-down.

The “Easterlin paradox” has been hotly disputed since, with some economists claiming to find a link between growth and rising happiness by using better quality data. On March…