The pursuit of happiness

The popular theory that wealthier countries are happier isn't necessarily the case.

Predicting happiness is a bit like herding cats. Smarter (but not necessarily wiser) people than me have been trying to make such predictions for years. One who attempted it in the mid-1970s was the economist Richard Easterlin, who came up with the Easterlin Paradox. This was, of course, an era in which some people sought happiness through brightly coloured acrylic clothing with lapels the size and shape of Concorde wings, and which they were wise to keep well away from open flames.

But Easterlin did not deal with clothing of that kind, at least not directly. Instead, his theory dealt with the psychology of keeping up with the neighbours. He found that while rich people tended to be much happier than poor people - a discovery that would surely earn an Ig Nobel Prize today - rich societies tended not to be any happier than poor societies. As countries get richer, he found, their citizens do not get correspondingly happier.

At the time, the US economy was still emerging from the 1973 oil crisis, but even so, it was deemed a heretical challenge to the consumerist ideal. Others dubbed the process the "hedonic treadmill" in which people had to buy more and better things to retain the same level of happiness, a Sisyphean quest that was destined to end badly. As if having a wardrobe full of brightly coloured acrylic clothing was not already enough of a disaster.

The theory was, of course, quickly adopted by the nascent anti-consumerist movement and it has been taken as a kind of fact for the thick end of 35 years. Supporters will point out that although music lovers can now have their lifetime collection of music in a player not much bigger than a matchbox instead of thousands of LPs arranged in milk crates, they are not necessarily happier because, instead of marvelling at this technological advance, they now covet an iPad instead of their now inadequate iPod touch.

But now it seems the Easterlin Paradox is under serious attack. According to the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, while it is true that rich people still tend to be much happier than poor people (I dub this the "well, duh" principle), better analysis of comparisons shows that wealthier countries are happier than poorer ones, and that as countries get richer, they tend to get happier.

This sits a little uneasily with data about the rate at which drugs such as Prozac are used in wealthier nations, but the more interesting factor is that a much better predictor for happiness is comparative: those who are richer than their peers and neighbours are happier regardless of how much money they have. All this is deeply troubling. I live next door to a wealthy family. I thought I was happy. Clearly I'm not. So I'm going to move to Musaffah. I hear there are some cats I can herd there.