Does Growth Mean Happiness?

As reported in the Economist (Chilled out, 25 Feb 2012) the financial meltdown and subsequent economic gloom has not prevented us getting happier (though Greeks may beg to differ). The report is based on a poll of 19,000 adults in 24 countries by Ipsos, a research company (for full details, click here). Although the Economist claims the results are “counterintuitive” they bear out previous research.For example, from an earlier World Values Survey:
Happiness trends in 24 countries, 1946-2006

In many cases, the results contradict the assumption that, despite economic growth and other changes, the publics of given societies have not gotten any happier. By far the most extensive and detailed time series comes from the U.S., and the full series covering the 60 years from 1946 to 2006 shows a flat trend.  But the subset from 1946 to 1980 shows a downward trend, while the series from 1980 to 2006 shows a rising trend. A similar picture appears from the much scantier British dataset (the second fullest time series).  The entire series from 1946 to 2006 shows a downward trend, but the series from 1980 to the present shows a clear upward trend.

Many other countries show clear trends toward rising happiness.  Indeed, among the countries for which we have long-term data, 19 of the 26 countries show rising happiness levels. In several of these countries—  India, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South Korea—there are steeply rising trends.  The other countries with rising trends are Argentina, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Three countries (the U.S., Switzerland and Norway) show flat trends from the earliest to latest available survey.  Only four countries (Austria, Belgium, the U.K. and West Germany) show downward trends. Almost five times as many countries show rising trends as downward trends.  Thus, even if we choose to read the U.S. data as flat rather than curvilinear, it cannot be taken as a universal model:  happiness actually rose in most countries for which long-term data are available.

Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness – A Global Perspective (1981-2007)

Regression analyses suggest that that the extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness. Since 1981, economic development, democratization, and rising social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice, which in turn has led to higher levels of happiness around the world, as the “human development” model suggests.