March 31, 2006


The question remains, what does social science say about the economy and happiness? The answer is pretty commonsensical: riches may not make you happy but poverty can make you miserable. This is true of both absolute poverty, which literally threatens survival, and relative poverty, which is about one’s economic well-being in relation to the society in which one lives.

As University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarizes research in The Happiness Hypothesis, “at the lowest end of the income scale money does buy happiness: People who worry every day about paying for food and shelter report significantly less well-being than those who don’t. But once you are freed from basic needs and have entered the middle class, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes smaller.”

Ending extreme poverty on a world scale is well within the realm of possibility, as economist Jeffrey Sachs demonstrates in The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time. And, since misery loves company, reducing it might be a good step towards a more secure, peaceful and happy world.

Domestically, the steps are pretty obvious: raise the minimum wage and promote living wage policies and job security across the board. Support the right of workers to organize to improve their conditions without fear of retaliation. Guarantee universal and comprehensive health care to all people. Defend the social safety net, including Social Security and supports for employment such as the earned income tax credit.

It might be nice to replace kleptocracy with (very) old fashioned civic virtue at the federal level. This means investing more in infrastructure and education at all levels, including quality early childhood education, rather than giving more tax breaks to people who don’t need it.

If we did all this, would that mean that more people would be happy? It would at least improve the odds. Thinkers as diverse as the Buddha and Sigmund Freud recognized that a certain amount of suffering is built into the human condition and civilized life. However, a lot of “surplus” misery could easily be eliminated given the will.

As Haidt notes, positive psychologists view happiness as the result of a combination of factors, including heredity, life conditions and voluntary activities. According to “the happiness formula,”


where H or happiness is the result of the combination of S or one’s set point or biological disposition, C or conditions of life, and V or voluntary activities. Changing conditions would help in one of three variables. The other two will take some luck and effort.

So happy trails…and good luck.

(Coming attractions: weekend special with gratuitous animal pictures)


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