Things Probably Matter

by Scott Alexander4 min read21st Jul 20161 comment


Personal Blog

A while back when I wrote about how China’s economic development might not have increased happiness there much, Scott Sumner wrote a really interesting response, Does Anything Matter?

He points out that it’s too easy to make this about exotic far-off Chinese. Much the same phenomenon occurs closer to home:

If nothing really matters in China, if even overcoming horrible problems doesn’t make the Chinese better off, then what’s the use of favoring or opposing any public policy? After all, America also shows no rise in average happiness since the 1950s, despite:

1. A big rise in real wages.
2. Environmental clean-up (including lead–does Flint matter?)
3. Civil rights for African Americans
4. Feminism, gay rights.
5. Dentists now use Novocain (My childhood cavities were filled without it)
6. 1000 channels in glorious widescreen HDTV
7. Blogs

I could go on and on. And yet, if the surveys are to be believed, we are no happier than before. And I think it’s very possible that we are in fact no happier than before, that there’s a sort of law of the conservation of happiness. As I walk down the street, grown-ups don’t seem any happier than the grown-ups I recall as a kid. Does that mean that all of those wonderful societal achievements since 1950 were absolutely worthless?

But there are exceptions. I recall reading that surveys showed a rise in European happiness in the decades after WWII, and Scott reports that happiness is currently very low in Iraq and Syria. So that suggests that current conditions do matter.

The following hypothesis will sound really ad hoc, but matches the way a lot of people I know talk about their lives. Suppose people’s happiness is normally calibrated around the sort of lifestyle that they view as “normal.” As America got richer after 1950, it all seemed very normal, so people didn’t report more happiness. Ditto for China during the boom years. Everyone around you was also doing better, so you started thinking about how you were doing relative to your neighbors. But Germans walking through the rubble of Berlin in 1948, or Syrians doing so today in Aleppo, do see their plight as abnormal. They remember a time before the war. So they report less happiness than during normal times.

The obvious retort is – modern Chinese grew up when China was very poor. Why didn’t they calibrate themselves to poverty, such that sudden wealth seems good? What’s the difference between a Chinese person going from poverty to wealth, versus a Syrian going from stability to chaos? Might it be a shorter time course? A sudden shock is noticeable, a gradual thirty-year improvement in living standards isn’t?

Probably not. There seem to be a lot of cases where happiness of large groups does change gradually in response to social trends less dramatic than a world war.

First, consider African-Americans. The New York Times calls the increase in black happiness over the past forty years “one of the most dramatic gains in the happiness data that you’ll see”. This is not just about poverty; in 1970, blacks who earned more than 75% of whites were only in the tenth percentile of white happiness. Today, those blacks would be in the fiftieth percentile; they’re still doing worse than would be expected based on income, but not nearly as much worse. This is a very sensible and predictable thing to find. Black people face a lot less racism and discrimination today than in 1970 [citation needed], so assuming that was really unpleasant we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re happier. But notice that this is a time course very similar to the rise of China! It doesn’t look like black people picked a happiness level to calibrate on and then never bothered to adjust. It looks like they adjusted exactly like we would expect them to, even over the course of a multi-decade change.

Second, consider women. In 1970, US women were generally happier than US men. Today, the reverse is true. There seems to be a general pattern around the world of women being happier than men in traditional societies and less happy than men in modern societies (though see Language Log for a contrary perspective). I don’t think of this as a weird paradox. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that having to work outside the home makes people less happy, getting to spend time with their family makes them more happy, and having to work outside the home but also being expected to take care of your family at the same time makes them least happy of all. In any case, the point is that the numbers are changing. Men and women aren’t just fixating on some level of happiness and staying there, they’re altering their happiness level based on real trends, just like African-Americans did (but apparently unlike Chinese).

Third, I was finally able to find a paper that had really good data on change in happiness in different countries, and it supports the idea that happiness can change significantly on a countrywide level.

This is change in happiness in a bunch of countries between about 1990 and 2010 (the years were slightly different in each country). There are other graphs for related concepts like life satisfaction and subjective well-being that look about the same.

The most striking finding is that most countries got happier between those two years – sometimes a lot happier. In Mexico, the percent of people saying they were very happy increased by 25 percentage points!

Just eyeballing the graph, there’s not an obvious relationship between happiness and economic growth – China is still near the bottom like we talked about before, and France – a country that’s been First World since forever – is near the top. Even Japan, which is famous for its decades of stagnation, has done pretty well. But the authors tell us that after doing their statistical analyses, there is a strong relationship with economic growth. Okay, I guess.

They also say there’s a dramatic relationship with freedom and democracy. Mexico, the top country on the graph, went from a relatively closed to a relatively democratic government during this time. South Africa, number five, went from apartheid to no apartheid. Some of the ex-Communist countries like Poland and Ukraine also look pretty good here. On the other hand, other ex-Communist countries like Lithuania and Estonia are near the bottom. I wonder if this has to do with cutoff points – since every country started at a slightly different time, maybe they began sampling Poland during the worst parts of Soviet dictatorship and got Lithuania right in the first euphoria of independence? I don’t know. It all seems very noisy.

They also mention that the United States’ supposedly level happiness is kind of a misunderstanding. People say things like “Happiness in the US has been flat from 1950 to today”, but in fact it declined from 1950 to 1979 and increased from 1980 to today. They attribute this to the 1950s being unusually happy; then the 60s and 70s being unusually conflict-prone, and the Reagan Revolution and Clinton years were back to being optimistic. They don’t have data that stretches too long after that.

(This is pretty neat for Reagan and Clinton. When I die, I’ll consider my life a success if people attribute a spike on national happiness graphs to my influence.)

So apparently population happiness levels do change in response to relevant social changes, even on multi-decade timescales. Which brings us back to asking – what’s up with China?

The graph above shows India as doing okay – not great, but okay. But a similar graph on subjective well-being – which should be another way of looking at the same thing – shows India as doing pretty poorly, right down there with China – even though its GDP per capita quadrupled during the period of study.

I see a lot of conflicting perspectives about whether economic growth increases national happiness. It may, but the effect isn’t as big as you’d expect, and is usually overpowered by other factors. Maybe it isn’t even direct, but has something to do with development increasing democracy, liberalism, rule of law, and stability. China got the development, but its happiness genuinely didn’t increase because of country-specific factors that have something to do with how it developed (inequality? pollution? authoritarianism?).

This matches the race and gender data. Blacks saw a big happiness boost during a time when their feeling of freedom (but not their income) increased relative to whites. Women saw a small happiness drop during a time when their income (but not their feeling of freedom) increased relative to men.

So it looks like happiness can change. It just didn’t change in China over the past thirty years. The apparent paradox of improving economic situation and stable/decreasing happiness is genuinely paradoxical. Intangibles are probably just way more important than money, even amounts of money big enough to raise whole countries out of poverty.


1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:09 PM
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I'd strongly suggest that anyone looking into this kind of issues explored more the current research on how wealth distribution affects wellbeing. I recommend The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett as a point to start, is the single most relevant book I've read in my whole psychology curriculum.

Countries hardly find themselves better off due to economic growth and GDP alone, what matters the most is how this increased wealth is distributed, and economic growth is getting more and more decoupled with people finances.


A separated problem is that people seem to be pretty bad at finding an anchor against which to evaluate their happiness level. I'd be pretty skeptical of any program that tried to improve the quality of life and used the people subjective reports of happiness as a measurement.