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Happy? Let's Sum It Up

Researchers tap the `dismal science' of economics to quantify well-being. It isn't money that leaves you feeling like a million.

July 03, 2006|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Midway into his career as a professor, USC's Richard Easterlin deduced something that seemed astonishing, at least for an economist: Money doesn't buy happiness.

Grandparents and sages have said as much through the ages. Yet when Easterlin published his first happiness research in the 1970s, fellow economists brushed it off. "People don't take this as serious stuff," he said. "They think it's maybe cocktail party conversation."

Things are looking up these days for Easterlin, 80, and the small but increasingly visible network of researchers relying on the so-called dismal science of economics to find the keys to happiness.

If earning more money generally does surprisingly little or even nothing to make societies happier, they wonder, what works better? Good health? Marriage? Sex? By one reckoning, boosting the frequency of sex in a marriage from once a month to once a week brings as much happiness as an extra $50,000 a year.

Happiness economists review thousands of attitude surveys and apply high-level math to calculate the satisfaction connected with activities and demographic traits. It sounds like sociology, but the economists are more apt to focus on money and work.

Consider the sex study. Through surveys and some fancy math, economists essentially created a ladder of happiness and found that the extra sex and the extra $50,000 provided the same boost.

Happiness economics, its enthusiasts emphasize, isn't a touchy-feely enterprise. They say that it eventually could harness the power of economics to better benefit humanity and help guide public policy.

Their findings often suggest that, instead of focusing so heavily on economic growth, governments could turn more attention to things that might, in essence, cheer people up. The options include better medical care, greater job security and reduced crime. These cost money, but they don't necessarily put more cash in a person's pocket.

With those sorts of goals in mind, the United Kingdom is exploring the development of one or more national indicators of well-being, and a group of prominent American and foreign academics is calling on the U.S. government to do the same.

Bhutan, a small Buddhist nation in the Himalayas, has drawn international attention with plans to introduce an array of "Gross National Happiness" indicators. The measures, due by 2008, would track such areas as health and education, along with "cultural vitality and diversity" and "psychological well-being."

Skeptics question whether this and other efforts are anything more than happy talk.

The study of happiness also attracts neuroscientists, sociologists and, in particular, psychologists. Economists sometimes collaborate with these experts, such as the one who teamed with psychologists in a study published Friday in the journal Science that reinforced the notion that money buys little happiness.

But other academics wonder if this is a place for money-minded number crunchers.

"I think whoever coined the term 'dismal science' was not that far off," said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent social psychologist at the Claremont Graduate University. He said economists "see things often so much out of context and so one-dimensionally.... I wouldn't mistake real life for what economists talk about."

Although the findings of happiness economics can cut both ways politically, some observers see a left-leaning tendency.

"Most of the things that have been published about the policy implications of happiness research have definitely had a big-government slant to it. They're like, 'Here's another reason for the government to do something else,' " said Will Wilkinson, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.

Mainstream economists, accustomed to such measures as gross domestic product, frequently view the attitude surveys examined by happiness economists as squishy and subjective. They question whether any poll can scientifically measure happiness.

Easterlin and others who've followed his pioneering research insist it's possible.

Enrico Marcelli, a Harvard researcher who earned his doctorate from USC, contends that his work with Easterlin shows that happiness among American adults peaks at age 51 -- earlier than many other researchers had believed -- and that men start becoming happier than women after the age of 48.

One possible reason for that gender gap: Men who survive into old age are more likely to be married than older women, who often must carry on alone, either widowed or divorced.

Economic thinkers considered the pursuit of happiness as far back as the late 18th century. Legal theorist Jeremy Bentham and, later, John Stuart Mill, the 19th century English philosopher and economist, wrestled with "utilitarianism," the idea that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

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