Tag Archives: Happiness

Minimal monetised societies and happiness

For less developed countries economic growth is often assumed to improve the happiness of the population although this relationship has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent times. A new study shows that people in societies where money plays a minimal role can have a level of happiness comparable to those living in Scandinavian countries which typically rate highest in the world. An interview with Eric Galbraith (McGill University, Canada) on Radio New Zealand’s ‘Sunday’ programme caught my attention in which he discusses the research undertaken in the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh. The paper is entitled:

Happy without money: Minimally monetized societies can exhibit high subjective well-being

Public policy that has focused on GDP growth fails to capture other aspects such as income inequality, the depletion of natural resources, environmental concerns etc. However subjective well-being (SWB) is an indicator that is more associated with the variables that matter to people. Galbraith et al question the role of money in determining SWB and reference the Easterlin Paradox (see below) which found that people don’t tend to get happier when their income goes up – see graph below.

What is the Easterlin Paradox?

Easterlin Paradox
  1. Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
  2. But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
  3. As countries get richer, they do not get happier. Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. One of Easterlin’s conclusions was that relative income can weigh heavily on people’s minds.

It is generally believed that people in less developed countries that have minimally-monetised economies have low that SWB. However the fact that happiness has a universal feeling suggest that income may be just a substitute for other sources of happiness, an assumption that is easier to notice in settings where money has little or no use. They used three independent measures to assess complementary but distinct psychological dimensions of SWB.

  1. Cognitive life evaluation – this asks about a person’s satisfaction with life and questions are phrased in a few different forms.
  2. Affect balance – asks what emotions they had experienced throughout the previous day, and calculated as the difference between positive and negative emotions.
  3. Momentary affect – data was obtained by querying subjects by telephone at random times about their emotional state.

Researchers selected four sites in two countries:

Solomon Islands – round 80% of the population live in rural subsistence communities and it has a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.546 (rank 152 in the world). The sites were Roviana Lagoon (rural site) and Gizo (urban site)

Bangladesh – 35.9% of it being urban, and has an HDI of 0.608 (world rank 136). The sites were Nijhum Dwip (rural) and Chittagong (urban).

The graph below shows that the 4 sites, although are minimally monetised societies,
do experience high levels of SWB which challenge the prevailing view that economic growth is a reliable pathway to increase subjective well-being. While the data presented here were collected only in two countries and four sites this is the first study to that systematically compares standardised SWB measures in minimally monetised, very low-income societies.

New Zealand Household income not enough to be happy.

The recent Parliamentary Economic Review looked at the Household incomes and housing costs for the year ended 30 June 2020. Household income includes income from wages and salaries, self-employment, investments, government benefits, along with superannuation income. Some main points from the article:

  • Annual average household income was $107,731
  • Median annual household income was $88,327
  • Data only covers nine months to March 2020 – Stats NZ unable to collect data during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Stats NZ

Highest/lowest household incomes were:

  • Auckland region had the highest average annual income at $128,747
  • Wellington region $123,533.
  • Manawatū- Whanganui region $85,841.

Housing costs include spending on rents and mortgage repayments (both principal and interest repayments), along with spending on property rates, and building-related insurance. NZ households spent an average of $21 of every $100 on household costs which is similar to 2019. Of those in rental accommodation 26.5% spent more than 40% of their household income on rental payments and other housing costs.

What level of income makes us happy? New Zealand 5th

However a “happiness premium” established by researchers at Purdue University, in the United States suggested that an individual salary of $178,328 (US$128,844) will make New Zealanders happy but as shown above our average household income is $107,731. Money and finance website Expensivity has calculated the salary level in each country that would prevent unhappiness. Researchers looked at data from 1.7 million people and cross-referenced their earnings and life satisfaction. They found that more money boosted happiness – but only to a point. Beyond that, further increases in income could actually lead to more unhappiness. New Zealand ranks as the 5th highest income required to achieve happiness.

Global GDP per person vs Happiness

Some great graphics here from The Economist – The Data Behind Happiness. Each circle represents a country and the size represents its population.

Red circle = countries where happiness has moved in the opposite direction to GDP.

Blue circle = countries where happiness and GDP have moved in the same direction.

On a scale from zero to ten where would you place your life satisfaction right now? That question was asked of thousands of people around the world, and surprisingly the rich in the country the happier it is. That makes Europeans the most gleeful, Africans the most miserable – but there’s a snag.

Overall in about a third of countries happiness has moved in the opposite direction to income. Countries don’t always get happier as they get richer. USA people are less happy despite a growing economy and in the UAE happiness has risen despite falling wealth.

China and the Easterlin Paradox

I have blogged before on the Easterlin Paradox and was interested to read about the relationship between economic growth and happiness. In the mid 1970s Richard Easterlin drew attention to studies that showed that, although successive generations are usually more affluent that their parents or grandparents, people seemed to be no happier with their lives. It is an interesting paradox to study when you are writing about measuring economic welfare and the standard of living.

What is the Easterlin Paradox?

  1. Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
  2. But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
  3. As countries get richer, they do not get happier. Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. One of Easterlin’s conclusions was that relative income can weigh heavily on people’s minds.

GDP growth is generally held as the most reliable predictor of a country’s level of happiness but in China GDP has increased 5 fold over the last 20 years but the level of well-being is less that in 1990. The levels of well-being bottomed out in the period of 2000-2005 and although have recovered they are not a level to that of 1990 – levels of happiness were high for then a poor country. This was similar to Russia before its transition where high levels of subjective well-being were reported.

Growth not a reliable indicator of happiness in China

Chinese level of happiness was highest in the 1990’s In the days of the “iron rice bowl system” – Chinese term used to refer to an occupation with guaranteed job security, as well as steady income and benefits. So it transpires that GDP growth in China was highest when happiness levels were falling. In fact, none of the six predictors used in the World Happiness Reports prove to be reliable predictors in China as there was little or no correlation between happiness and the six predictors- see below:

  1. GDP per capita,
  2. healthy years of life expectancy,
  3. social support (defined as having somebody to rely on in times of trouble),
  4. trust (defined as perceived absence of corruption in government and business),
  5. perceived freedom to make life deci-sions,
  6. generosity (defined as giving to charity)

The two main factors explaining China’s trajectory in happiness levels are unemployment and the social safety net. Unemployment rose sharply after 1990, reaching its peak in 2000–2005—the trough of China’s happiness—and has since declined moderately, as happiness levels have risen moderately. The level of unemployment is mirrored by the relative coverage of the social safety net over the same time period.

It seems that the restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOE) has had the most profound effect on the happiness of Chinese people. This mirrors developments in Eastern European countries. In addition to unemployment rates and the social safety net, education and age are also important factors in determining Chinese people’s happiness over the period. Levels of education and of happiness are indeed linked; not only does a college education provide access to better job opportunities, but it also makes one more adaptable to changing circumstances.

Chinese Discourses on Happiness (2018) Edited by Gerda Wielander and Derek Hird

OMD – The Punishment of Luxury

I came across this new album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) – The Punishment of Luxury. For those of you are unfamiliar, OMD are a band from Merseyside Liverpool and have been long remembered for their hits “Electricity”, in 1979 and the 1980 anti-war song “Enola Gay”. The band achieved broader recognition via their seminal album Architecture & Morality (1981) and its three singles, all of which were international hits.

The “Punishment of Luxury” album is specifically about the global divide. Today the world is more unequal than at any time in world history which is due largely to the fact that 200 years ago everyone was poor. But the increasing wealth of the higher income group has been alarming – America’s top 10% now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90%. The fact that people are much better off materially doesn’t seem to translate into a better mental condition – they seem to be unhappy. If you are in this situation you have undoubtedly got on the hedonic treadmill and the marketing people have got under your skin. It seems that if you don’t have the latest brand of a product you are less worthy of being recognized by your peer group and have less self-respect.

It seems that the very wealthy have the same problems as the rest of us but only on a much larger scale. A research paper from Boston College entitled “Secret fears of the super-Rich found that the top fears of the rich are:

  • The rich need increasing amounts of money to make them feel financially secure.
  • They feel isolated and don’t share their concerns or stress as they will sound ungrateful.
  • Thy worry that their children will become spoilt by inheriting so much wealth or resentful if its too little.
  • You are unsure if your friends genuinely like you or your money
  • There is constant dissatisfaction with consumption as something better / new is always being launched. They can’t get off the hedonic treadmill
  • Parents are concerned that money will rob their children of ambition and getting a job.

The title track is below. It is very OMD for those of you who are familiar with the sound of the band.

Money, happiness and hedonic adaptation.

The Economist ‘Free Exchange’ column had a piece on money and happiness in which they looked at research into how peoples level of happiness is relative to reference groups. In the mid 1970s Richard Easterlin drew attention to studies that showed that, although successive generations are usually more affluent that their parents or grandparents, people seemed to be no happier with their lives. It is an interesting paradox to study when you are writing about measuring economic welfare and the standard of living.

Easterlin ParadoxWhat is the Easterlin Paradox?
1) Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
2) But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
3) As countries get richer, they do not get happier. Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. One of Easterlin’s conclusions was that relative income can weigh heavily on people’s minds.

Recent studies that looked at countries over time concluded that more income leads to greater levels of happiness. However it wasn’t clear as to whether money leads to happiness or happiness leads to money.

The Busara Centre for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, Kenya, runs experiments with people from the depressed and rural areas of the country. Their researchers looked at the results of a lottery-like scheme in rural Kenya, in which a random sample of 503 households spread over 120 villages was chosen to receive cash transfers of up to $1,525. The average transfer, $357, was almost enough to double the wealth of a typical villager. After this had taken place researchers measured the well-being of villagers before and after the transfer of money. As expected those that received money reported an increase in happiness but those that did not receive any money fell sharply when they saw their neighbors livelihood improve. It transpired that the reduction in satisfaction by seeing your neighbour getting richer was greater than the increase in satisfaction from receiving the cash transfer. So therefore:

The bigger the handouts to others in their village, the greater the dissatisfaction of non-recipients

Hedonic Adaptation
Over a period of time the effects of the increase in a person’s income wears off over time as the recipient gets used to the norm. Economists refer to this as ‘Hedonic Adaptation’. There were big differences in the levels of satisfaction but after a year the level of happiness of both the recipient and non-recipients returned close to its original level prior to the windfall gain.

One interesting result was that villagers were not so concerned about inequality but the decline in their own wealth relative to the mean. Therefore a village could have great inequality as one group has got richer and another group poorer but the actual mean income remains unchanged.

A study by Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell entitled ‘Income and Well-Being: an empirical analysis of the comparison income effect’ shows that there is an asymmetry in the way people compare themselves with others. There is a tendency for people to compare themselves to those who are better off so we shift our reference group as our income goes up. Because of this we are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.

Increases in family income accompanied by identical increases in the income of the reference group do not lead to significant changes in well-being; the larger an individual’s own income is in comparison with the income of the reference group, the happier the individual is. Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell

Consumption and Short-Termism

The New Philosopher dedicated a recent issue to The Property Wars in which there were articles by bestselling author Thomas Piketty in which he states that the current structure of property rights is a major cause of inequality. There was also a piece on consumerism and happiness

Many have argued that money doesn’t buy happiness and the most prominent economist to write about this was Richard Layard in his 2005 book ‘Happiness’. Rich countries are no happier than poor ones – real US incomes more than doubled after 1950 while happiness flatlined – and across the chequerboard of nations happiness goes up barely a jot beyond a per capita income of $20,000. Why to we buy stuff? The Gilded Age in the 19th century was a time of industrialisation and consumerism with property being “anything that the individual may acquire which sustains and prolongs life…and gives an advantage over opposing forces” – The Psychology of Ownership by Linus Kline and CJ France. In Australia, the lion’s share of household debt goes to mortgages on the family home, and world-wide the two best selling items are soft drink and potato chips. In the name of property and calories we slay the credit card and kill our domestic bottom line.

In reality, evolution may let us indulge our intellect, but feelings were there first and quickly remind us of this when we forget to do the basics like eating and sleeping. Theorists have argued that feeling good about products / services is central to our belief that they are good for us. As we find it hard to make decisions without feelings the advertising industry have entered the scene. John Kenneth Galbraith, in his book The Affluent Society, blamed the vast increase in consumption in the post-war period on companies that were now producing items which consumers would desired but not necessarily needed. Today brand building has become dominant in our society and the goal of each brand is to make you feel good about the product. For example:

  • A certain Mexican beer takes you to a part of the world where you want to be – a beach with a beautiful sunset.
  • A car company takes you to a ski resort amongst a picturesque Alpine environment.

Products become substitutes for experience as you get delivered the feelings by association – virtual reality with consuming a product. With a brand meaning more pleasure for consumers it is no wonder that there is greater consumption which leads to overspending. The 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes ‘excessive acquisition’ as a feature of ‘hoarding disorder’. And the brain scan data are in too: compulsive buyers light up the same reward centre that rats trigger with a lever, getting rewards until they drop.

In getting used to the short-term feel good factor of material possessions, we shall over invest in acquiring them at the expense of our leisure. Consumers do underestimate the hedonic treadmill and as a result our life can be too focused on working and making money, and away from other pursuits.


The New Philosopher – Issue #9 ‘Property Wars’ – 2015

Happiness –  Richard Layard – 2005

Dosage and Happiness

Is poverty about money or friends?

Social Interaction solutionIn the World Bank survey one stated that “I like money and nice things, but it’s not money that makes me happy. It’s people”. Research has suggested that social integration is more important for well-being than income and it also decreases poverty. By contrast loneliness can be deadly – one study found that it did more damage to health than smoking.

Income can be a misleading measure of need as:
1. Lower income groups end up living in different degrees of hardship depending on their intangible resources.
2. Having strong social integration reduce money hardship.
3. Friends and relatives can lend money, pool risk, mind children and bring news of job openings.

However a lot depends on having the right friends as if this does not eventuate hardship prevails. The more concentrated the poverty, the less helpful social networks tend to be.
A global survey conducted in 2014 by Gallup, a polling firm, found that 30% of people in the poorest fifth of their country’s population had nobody to rely on in times of need, compared to 16% of the richest fifth.

Several countries have experimented with schemes that connect lonely old people and deprived youth. Germany, for instance, has built “multi-generational” community centres where older visitors get computer coaching from teenagers.

Source: The Economist

Behavioural Economics iTunesU course for Schools

Behavioural EconomicsBack in February I blogged on a Behavioral Economics course that I have been teaching for the last three years at King’s College. I have now put all the resources onto an iTunesU course so that you can access the multi-media material that accompanies the course booklet. The iTunesU course includes the following:

Interviews with:
– Richard Thaler – co-author of ‘Nudge’
– Geoffrey Miller – author of ‘Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour’
– Dan Ariely – author of ‘Predictably Irrational’
– Daniel Kahneman – author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’

Scenes from:
– Black Gold
– The Corporation
– Inside Job
– Seinfeld
– Kevin Slavin – TED Talk “How algorithms shape our world”

The course booklet has been edited so that answers to questions can be typed – this can be downloaded also from the iTunesU course. Click on the link below to enroll on the course.


New Zealand Well-Being

Although a few years old, this graph from The Economist does highlight New Zealand as a country which has one of the highest levels of well-being but a low level of GDP per person to go with. The trend line shows that the higher the GDP per person the better the level of well-being. Ultimately the challenge for politicians is to try and get their country to the top left of the graph – i.e. higher well being for less GDP per person.

NZ Well-being