Social Happiness and Well-Being

What is the appropriate goal of economic and social policy? In a country where people
are starving, economic growth is universally viewed as the key objective. Food comes
first and philosophising second. As economies get richer, however, they can afford to
question the need for further riches.
This section collects empirical investigations on the social determinants of well-being. Suggested readings address different “social” factors potentially able to improve well-being and life satisfaction – like interpersonal relations, social protection systems, well-functioning public institutions and public services – often in opposition with the other determinants of well-being traditionally considered by economic studies, like income and material wealth.
There is a growing evidence that agents’ behaviour – even in its economic dimensions – cannot be entirely explained by the rational choice paradigm adopted by neoclassical economics.
Empirical studies show that homo economicus isn’t happier and, in advanced market economies, happiness seems to be related to social and relational factors besides income, material wealth, and private consumption.
Recent findings from such statistical happiness research include the following:
1. For a person, money does buy a reasonable amount of happiness. But it is useful to
keep this in perspective. Very loosely, for the typical individual, a doubling of salary
makes a lot less difference than life events like marriage.
2. For a nation, things are different. Whole countries — at least in the West where
almost all the research has been done — do not seem to get happier as they get richer.
3. Happiness is U-shaped in age. Women report higher well-being than men. Two of
the biggest negatives in life are unemployment and divorce. Education is associated
with high reported levels of happiness even after controlling for income.
4. The structure of a happiness equation has the same general form in each
industrialized country (and possibly in developing nations, though only a small
amount of evidence has so far been collected). In other words, the broad statistical
patterns look the same in France, Britain and Australia.
5. There is some evidence that the same is true in panels of people, ie. in longitudinal
data. Particularly useful evidence comes from looking at windfalls, like lottery wins.
6. There is adaptation. Good and bad life events wear off — at least partially — as people
get used to them.
7. Relative things matter a great deal. First, in experiments, people care about how they
are treated compared to those who are like them, and in the laboratory will even pay
to hurt others to restore what they see as fairness. Second, in large statistical studies,
reported well-being depends on a person s wage relative to an average or
comparison wage. Third, wage inequality depresses reported happiness in a region
or nation (controlling for many variables), but the effect is not large.

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