Science of happiness – and the April jobs report

According to a recent global report, drawing on the emerging science of happiness, a number of countries, including the UK, most of northern Europe, and Australia, among others, are making the subjective well-being of their citizens a mandatory part of their national statistics.

There are two broad measurements of happiness: first, the ups and downs of daily emotions, and second, an individual’s overall evaluation of life.  The former is sometimes called “affective happiness,” and the latter “evaluative happiness.”

If you filled out a form rating your short-range or overall happiness in various contexts, on a scale from 1 to 10, that would be a “subjective well-being” census.

Now, one might object that such a poll could be of questionable value making comparisons from country to country, culture to culture, rich to poor nations, language to language, class to class, etc. However, when these surveys are integrated with objective statistical historical data on income, disease, mortality, education, mental illness, education, crime, work satisfaction, divorce, etc., etc., the well-being surveys reveal a lot of human-wide correlations about where society can make investments, and where it is currently wasting resources that improve overall happiness.

Not surprisingly, the same skeptics who doubt climate change, because they can’t imagine everyone is not cooking statistics in the manner they do, are throwing rocks at happiness research. Some are determined to strangle the emergence of a “happiness program” in its cradle. After all, the science of happiness is looking quite pink in its socialistic consequences.

Contrary to many cultures, the pursuit of happiness in the U.S. has been primarily, certainly through much of mass media, viewed as an individual “inalienable right,” more than a social one. However, research summarized in the links above show there are strong countervailing cooperative, community, social, and team components to subjective well-being in surveys. The data is treasonable in the views of some since it shows people are happy in systems with robust universal health care, retirement, and education systems.

For example, in the U.S., increments in income above $300,000 a year provide negligible increments in happiness. If you capped money income at that level, you might have to devise some new ways to mobilize the huge sums of capital required for “moving mountain” type projects, but no one, even the rich, even CEOs, would be any less happy.

Further If the minimum income could approach $50,000, our traditional paradigm of unhappiness based on want or poverty would evaporate. It would be a true cultural revolution – since both our collective and individual aspirations and fears would be reset to a new universe of possibilities.

In our current happiness/unhappiness paradigm, research shows every dollar under $50,000 in annual income is a direct increment in misery.

Approaching and beyond $50K in income, household income still counts as important for life satisfaction, but it does so only in an increasingly limited way. Other things matter as much, or more:

  1. community trust, fostering cooperation and service to each other;

  2. mental and physical health;

  3. the quality of governance and rule of law.

Raising incomes can raise happiness, especially in poor societies, but it is no accident that the happiest countries in the world tend to be high-income countries that also have a high degree of social equality, trust, and quality of governance. In recent years, Denmark, with its largely socialized medical system, high levels of education, and socialized retirement tops the list of happy countries in the GNH index. And it’s no accident that the U.S., despite its great wealth, has experienced no rise of life satisfaction for half a century, a period in which inequality has soared, social trust has declined, class conflict increased, and the public is losing faith in its corrupted democratic institutions.

Which brings us to the latest jobs report from the Department of Labor and the latest picture of the U.S. economy’s recovery. It’s not in the direction of happiness, at least not any dimension the new science of happiness can detect. Graphs from the Washington Post tell the following “recovery” story:

  1. Of the sectors of our economy that have exceeded 2008 pre-depression level, the increasing jobs are overwhelmingly concentrated in occupations requiring a college education and occupations at the bottom of the pay scale: health, education and professional services, leisure and hospitality. The one clear “middle class” (near median income) occupation that has recovered is shale gas exploration (fracking).

  2. Most occupations with near median pay and benefits – in manufacturing, information technology, government, and non-durable goods – are either still in the trough of depression, or even declining. The latter is mainly government – the ONE area where public policy could make a big difference!

  3. Workforce participation has not improved at all – currently at 63 percent of the working age population. Early retirements, a swell of SSI disability claims and youth not moving out of home testify that the depression is far from over.

  4. The recovery trends in the April jobs report portend increases, not decreases, in the growth of inequality. That sets the stage for the next crisis, which will come long before recovery from this one.

An ancient Buddhist proverb says: “You’ve got to go with the grain, you’ve got to go with the narrative; the storyline. The storyline is written by history, not by your own ‘I want.'”

It’s partly true. Happiness is only possible within the grain of history – the outlines of the narrative are all around us – but we get to decide the end of the story. And, lo and behold, the grain can change! We all get a decent job – and life for the multitudes is transformed.

Photo: Flickr (CC)


John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.