The Bliss We Can't Buy

Ponder now the happiness gap.

In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin pointed out that beyond a certain point—presumably when people's basic needs for food, shelter, public order and work are met—greater wealth does not generate more national happiness. The America of 2007 is far richer than the America of 1977. Life expectancy is 78 years, up from 74 years. Our homes are bigger and crammed with more paraphernalia (microwave ovens, personal computers, flat-panel TVs). But happiness is stuck.

In 1977, 35.7 percent of Americans rated themselves "very happy," 53.2 percent "pretty happy" and 11 percent "not too happy," reports the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. In 2006, the figures are similar: 32.4 percent "very happy," 55.9 percent "pretty happy" and 11.7 percent "not too happy." Likewise, in most advanced countries, self-reported happiness has been flat for decades.

Hordes of scholars are asking why. Consider Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank's new book, "Falling Behind." He argues that rising affluence condemns us to self-defeating consumption contests. People want ever-bigger homes, because their friends have ever-bigger homes. But the extra pleasure of owning these grander homes is muted, because (yes) all our friends have them, too. Meanwhile, the added debt to buy the house may make us more anxious; and we may regret sacrificing some leisure—working harder to buy the bigger home.

Greater individual wealth does not bring greater collective welfare. Moving farther out into suburbia for a bigger home increases traffic congestion and our commutes. Roads grow more clogged, pollution worsens. We engage in "behaviors that are smart for one, dumb for all," Frank writes.

Superficially, Frank seems convincing. The trouble is that he ignores history. The behavior he describes isn't new. A mobile society such as ours is inherently stressful. People rise and fall. Americans have always been acquisitive and rank-conscious. In "Democracy in America" (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "Besides the good things which he possesses, [the American] every instant fancies a thousand others ... This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret."

The psychology of prosperity—striving, taking risks—feeds on ambition and insecurity. Our system often seems an insane rat race. But over time, it has created huge gains in material well-being. Air conditioning may not have made people in the South and elsewhere happier. But it surely has made them more comfortable.

True, there's an economic disconnect today. Despite obvious prosperity, including 8 million new jobs since mid-2003, consumer confidence is subdued. But the explanation, I think, lies neither in Frank's elaborate theory nor in several popular culprits—higher gasoline prices and the housing slump. Instead, I'd cite two underlying causes.

First, economic insecurity has increased. Companies are quicker to fire. Median job tenure for men age 45 to 54 dropped from about 13 years in 1983 to eight years in 2006, reports economist Rob Valletta of the San Francisco Fed. People have more cause to worry—and they do.

Second, Americans compare the present with the immediate past. The economic boom of the late 1990s conditioned people to expect a blissful future. Clearly, that hasn't arrived. People are disappointed because reality doesn't match the promise.

Still, even the 1990s economic boom didn't produce a happiness boom; the survey figures barely budged. Nor has the growing income inequality since the 1970s produced an unhappiness boom. Between the richest and poorest Americans, happiness gaps have always been large. But income differences in the middle class involve modest or nonexistent differences in happiness. The old adage is true: money can't buy happiness.

We ultimately get satisfaction from our relations with family and friends, the love we give or receive, the meaning we find in work, service, religion or hobbies. The strongest survey finding is that married people are happier than singles, particularly widowers and divorcees, says Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center. An estimated 42.5 percent of married couples say they are "very happy," compared with 18 percent of the divorced.

The popularity of happiness research suggests that economists and other social scientists think they can devise public policies to elevate the nation's feel-good quotient. This is an illusion. Happiness depends heavily on individual character and national culture. Some people will complain no matter how great their fortune; others will smile through the worst of times. In international comparisons, the United States ranks lower in happiness than some smaller nations (Denmark, Ireland, Sweden) but much higher than many large countries with paternalistic welfare states (France, Germany, Italy). Governments can provide health care. But they cannot outlaw despair or mandate euphoria.

It is novelists and philosophers, not social scientists, who provide a deeper understanding of happiness. For better or worse, there are limits to re-engineering the human spirit.