Anti-prosperity thinkers have long pointed to flat levels of happiness as proof that more income doesn’t make us happier. The more adventurous, such as Clive Hamilton, use this as part of their argument for cutting economic growth. Last year I reported Barry Schwartz’s argument that the US recession may have a positive effect on happiness as people realise that they don’t need the latest in consumer goods.
I take the view that while voluntary downshifting can be good for happiness, recessions are bad for subjective well-being (though because believing that your standard of living is going to improve in future is generally good for happiness, happiness is likely to recover more quickly than the economy).
Some US evidence on the happiness effects of their recession is starting to be published. Since 1972 the General Social Survey has asked its respondents ‘taken all together, how would you say things are these days would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?. In 2008 13.9% of Americans said they were ‘not too happy’, the second highest number ever recorded (the worst was 17.2% in 1972). ‘Very happy’ was on 31.7%, the worst result since 1994 and equal fourth worst.
The GSS is an annual poll, but the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index surveys most days. It found that using an average of these results 2009 was slightly worse than 2008 for ‘happiness and enjoyment without worry’ (down .8% to 47.4%) and ‘stress and worry without enjoyment’ was up .7% to 11.7%.
Though the trend is in the direction I expected, the more important point is that these numbers are remarkably stable. This has been the pattern over the 60 or so years that happiness surveys have been conducted. Major events affect the results at the margins, but over time they head back to their normal level.