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Why aren't Americans happier than they were in the '70s?

Since 1972, the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has conducted a massive biennial survey of American attitudes called the General Social Survey. The GSS tracks hundreds of different trends in a conveniently visual format. Today we'll be discussing one of the stranger trends that has emerged from the GSS's findings over the decades. Specifically: why has American happiness failed to improve during this period?

The GSS gauges public happiness by asking its survey respondents this question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" You can see the results below.

happiness chart

The proportion of the population that's given each of these three responses has varied up and down across a roughly 10-percentage-point range over the years, but each currently sits very close to where it was in 1972. For example, about 30% of respondents reported that they were very happy in '72. That figure has varied between 30% and 40% in the years since, but it sat at 30% once more as of 2016. You can see a similar pattern for the respondents who answered that they were "pretty happy." This proportion stood at 53% in 1972 and varied between 50% and 60% afterwards, landing at 55% in 2016 — just 2% higher than previously. And likewise for respondents who answered that they were "not too happy." This figure stood at 17% in 1972; it has varied between roughly 8% and 18% since, arriving at 14% last year.

You can see just how flat the collective trend of these three metrics has been over the past several decades in this unified chart of the overall average happiness rating for Americans:

average happiness chart

These results are disconcerting because American society superficially seems to have improved in many ways since the National Opinion Research Center began performing these surveys — in terms of general wealth, technology, civic equality, and various other metrics, as this summary of the issue points out. The per-capita GDP nearly doubled from $25,000 to $48,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1972 and 2012; the proportion of Americans who have completed 4 years of college has also increased by 19% during the same period, from 12% to 31%.

Americans are also more tolerant today than they were in the past. During the '72-to-'12 interval, the percentage of Americans who felt that homosexuality is "always wrong" fell from 72% to 46%. The percentage of Americans who approve of interracial marriage between blacks and whites rose from roughly 25% in '72 to 86% in 2012. And the percentages of Americans who have abandoned the attitude that women who work outside the home damage their families have risen from roughly 30% to 70% over the same period.

One might intuitively expect improvements in GDP per capita, education, and social equality to increase national happiness, but these factors don't seem to have made much difference. The graph below, which charts average self-reported American happiness versus real GDP per capita, shows the contrast between American wealth growth and the population's stagnant mood:


Data from the World Database of Happiness, Erasmus University of Rotterdam, and the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. Graphic courtesy of The Motley Fool.

Other happiness measures beyond the GSS have found similar results in recent years. The Gallup Cantril "ladder" metric, which asks respondents to indicate their level of wellbeing by picking a rung on an imaginary life satisfaction ladder, has shown noticeable declines since 2008:

cantril ladder chart

Note that the Y-axis on this and other graphs in this post are not scaled to show 0.

The Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index, a composite measure that takes metrics like emotional health, work environment, and access to basic necessities into account along with a strict happiness measure, also shows stagnation in recent years:

well being index chart

One might reasonably respond that these findings aren't terribly surprising, on the grounds that money can't buy happiness. However, there's evidence that wealth and happiness are indeed correlated up to a point. The graph below shows the relationship between happiness and income for individual families. Though it levels off in logarithmic fashion near the top of the range, it's clear that more money tends to correspond to happier families up to a point.

happiness chart 2

This graph shows a similar pattern, but among nations instead of families:

life satisfaction chart

So why have all the changes to American society over the past 45 years failed to produce any durable improvements in national happiness? This is obviously an immensely complex question, and even the best answers available amount to educated speculation. Bearing that in mind, here are some possible explanations for this troubling finding:

1. These surveys aren't asking the right question. It's possible that while people's lots have improved during the period in question, these surveys' attempts to gauge this change are somehow failing to capture these improvements in the terms that the population actually thinks of them. For example, it's possible that people mostly think of happiness as a relative quality — how happy they are compared to the people around them, rather than how happy they are compared to their own life histories. If this is indeed the case, it's conceivable that Americans in general are becoming happier in the absolute sense without perceiving it, since the other people they're using for reference points are also becoming happier.

2. People get used to improvements too quickly for them to produce long-term changes in happiness.

It's possible that while American society has become wealthier, more just, and more technologically advanced, these improvements have only had transient effects on the way people regard the state of their own lives — they simply get used to their improved state of affairs after a brief period and revert to their prior level of satisfaction in life. This concept, known as the "hedonic treadmill" in psychology, suggests that people must work constantly to maintain a baseline level of happiness throughout life which is ironically resistant to long-term change by outside events. The economist Richard Easterlin believes that a version of the hedonic treadmill idea can be found in macroeconomics as well. He argues that long-term GDP growth in a given country does not actually produce long-term improvements in self-reported happiness among the people who live there, even though GDP is correlated with happiness both for nations and for individuals — an argument now known as the Easterlin paradox. Both the hedonic treadmill and the Easterlin paradox are subjects of contentious academic debate, but it's certainly possible that they help explain the perplexing trends found by the GSS.

3. The most visible improvements the American economy has undergone in recent decades haven't actually helped most people.

While America's per-capita GDP has gone up steadily for decades and many common household technologies today would've been unimaginable just a few decades ago, it's far less certain that these changes actually produce the improved sense of wellbeing that you might intuitively expect modern conveniences and greater overall wealth to offer. (This point may sound rather obvious to anyone who has recently spent an afternoon on the phone with their wireless provider.)

Why these social shifts might not register as beneficial to most people is a massively complicated question in itself, but one common line of reasoning holds that per-capita GDP is not an especially meaningful economic metric by which to gauge social progress, as GDP growth does not necessarily reach every level of society. This possibility would undermine one of the central premises of American political discourse, which is that driving GDP growth should be the central goal of economic policy. There's reason to take this idea seriously. As we've seen, America's impressive GDP growth over the past several decades has not translated into higher self-reported happiness for its citizens. Though GDP has grown, some other important indicators of economic wellbeing have remained flat since the '70s, such as real wages and median household income. Meanwhile, economic inequality has risen to levels that rival the pre-Depression economy of the early 20th century after hitting a low point in the early '70s. And while new technologies have helped American workers become more productive, they haven't shortened the American workweek — a 2014 Gallup poll found that American adults with full-time employment actually worked an average of 47 hours per week instead of the conventional 40, and American workers tend to keep longer hours than those in most other developed countries.

It's also possible that GDP figures are not doing a good job of measuring wealth, either because of flaws in the way it is calculated, or because the way it is calculated isn't reflecting what we'd truly think of as "wealth" in the most meaningful sense.

In the meantime, this World Happiness Index report points out that some non-economic measures of wellbeing — such as perceived government corruption, the freedom to make life decisions, public health indicators such as drug addiction and suicide rates, and general levels of social trust — have actually worsened among Americans. These measure are not typically part of the policymaking conversation about the American economy, but they may be offsetting happiness gains associated with growing wealth and superior technology.

Concerns of this nature have led social scientists and policymakers to work on developing alternative ways to measure the economy's impact on happiness. The highest-visibility example of this effort is the concept of Gross National Happiness. Named after an offhand comment made by the King of Bhutan as he described his governing philosophy during the '70s — “We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important.” — the concept has since been enshrined in Bhutan's national Constitution and has gone on to influence attempts to focus economic policy around positive outcomes for citizens instead of mere growth. Though Gross National Happiness is not a rigidly defined economic index, it focuses broadly on measures like economic self-reliance, conservation of the environment, and good governance. Using such unconventional metrics to guide policy may prove helpful in avoiding the paradox of growing wealth and stagnant happiness that we've seen in these GSS findings.

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