Does Economic Growth Improve Human Morale?
During the mid-1980s, my family and I spent a sabbatical year in the historic town of St. Andrews, Scotland. Comparing life there with life in America, we were impressed by a seeming disconnection between national wealth and well-being. To most Americans, Scottish life would have seemed Spartan. Incomes were about half that in the U.S. Among families in the Kingdom of Fife surrounding St. Andrews, 44 percent did not own a car, and we never met a family that owned two. Central heating in this place not far south of Iceland was, at that time, still a luxury.
In hundreds of conversations during our year there and during three half summer ...view middle of the document...
So far as happiness is concerned, it hardly matters whether one drives BMW or, like so many of the Scots, walks or rides a bus.
Even very rich people – the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans surveyed by University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener – are only slightly happier than average. With net worth all exceeding $100 million, providing ample money to buy things they don’t need and hardly care about, 4 in 5 of the 49 people responding to survey agreed that “Money can increase or decrease happiness, depending on how it is used.” And some were indeed unhappy. One fabulously wealthy man said he could never remember being happy. One woman reported that money could not undo misery caused by her children’s problems.
Adapting to Fame, Fortune, and Affliction
At the other end of life’s circumstances are most victims of disabling tragedies. With exceptions – vicious child abuse or rape, for example – most people who suffer negative life events do not exhibit long-term emotional devastation. People who become blind or paralyzed, perhaps after a car accident, thereafter suffer the frustrations imposed by their limitations. Daily, they must cope with the challenges imposed by their disabilities. Yet, remarkably, most eventually recover a near-normal level of day-to-day happiness. Thus, university students who must cope with disabilities are as likely as able-bodied students to report themselves happy, and their friends agree with their self-perceptions. “Weeping may linger for the night” observed the Psalmist, “but joy comes with the morning.”
These findings underlie an astonishing conclusion from the new scientific pursuit of happiness. As the late New Zealand researcher Richard Kammann put it, “Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in the theory of happiness.” In a society where everyone lived in 4,000-square-foot houses, people would likely be no happier than in a society in which everyone lived in 2,000 square foot houses. Good events – a pay hike, winning a big game, an A on an important exam – make us happy, until we adapt. And bad events – an argument with one’s mate, a work failure, a social rejection – deject us, but seldom for more than a few days.
Feeling the short-run influence of events, people use such events to...