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Americans: Ever Unhappier and Hurting

When Economics Professor Danny Blanchflower is not forecasting the arrival of recessions and pushing iconoclastic views about interest rates, he is a happiness guru. With his colleague Andrew Oswald, he analyzes people’s feelings about their lives and what motivates them (including money and sex — surprise, surprise). Blanchflower and Oswald’s latest findings, as published in a NBER working paper, Unhappiness and Pain in Modern America: A Review Essay, and Further Evidence, on Carol Graham’s Happiness for All?, were reported on this week in a Washington Post piece: Not only are Americans becoming less happy — we’re experiencing more pain too. Here are the study’s two key graphs:

Blanchflower Study UnhappyA.jpg

Blanchflower Study HurtingA.jpg

Don’t worry. Be happy.

Addendum: The paper is forthcoming in the American Economics Association’s Journal of Economic Literature

Addendum: A longtime reader writes in:

Thank you for the post. The findings as presented in the paper appear to suggest that 1) US is unhappy and 2) this may be related to the fact that US is hurting.

Since the paper leverages pain survey study from 2011, I used percentages reported in it to calculate ranks for each participating country (US got the lowest 32 meaning high pain). Rank of 1 means the lowest pain.

As the second consideration is happiness, I used data for the same 32 countries from World Happiness Report 2017 available here: (Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2017). World Happiness Report 2017, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network). Specifically, I utilized the 2014-2016 ranking of happiness data (Figure 2.2 and corresponding table) comprising the following components: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption. It should be noted that out of 155 countries, US is ranked 14 (Top 10%). This appears to disprove point 1). Rank of 1 means the highest happiness.

Regarding point 2), I calculated correlation between pain score and happiness score ranks for 32 respective countries (please see the attached). I observed statistically significant negative correlation i.e. countries ranked as “quite painful” are also ranked as quite happy. To me, this suggests that pain score is unlikely to be a reliable surrogate for the happiness and that there may be methodological flaws with the pain score metric in the first place (as in small sample size, reliance of self-reported aches and pains and being a snapshot of a single 4 week period in 2011).

It is also worth noting that US finds itself in a pretty good group of other countries with high pain/high happiness: Australia and Nordics: Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland (respective alpha-2 codes used). All 5/5 are in Top 10 happiest countries in the world.



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