Australia is a rich country. It is one of the few to have avoided a recession. This has been the result partly of successful macroeconomic policies, but largely of the huge mining boom, with Australia exporting minerals to China and other fast growing Asian economies.
But has this growth brought happiness? Are Australians having to work harder and harder to pay for their high standard of living? Indeed, do higher incomes generally result in greater happiness? The following articles explore this issue, both in an Australian context and more broadly. They look at some recent evidence.
For example, in one study, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese university students were asked what they held to be most important for assessing the worth of their lives. The crucial finding was that although higher incomes may be a contributing factor to increased happiness and well-being, especially for poorer people, other factors are more important. These include developing fulfilling personal relationships, whether with partners, family members or friends; gaining knowledge and wisdom; having enjoyable hobbies; having financial security (as opposed to higher incomes); having a worthwhile career; living a moral life; helping other people.
The question then arises whether our economic systems and incentives are geared towards achieving these outcomes. Or are we encouraged to consume more and more and to seek higher and higher incomes to feed our addiction to consumption?
Is there an information problem here? Do many individuals perceive that money will buy them happiness, whereas, in reality, money can’t buy them love?
Australia: Where the good life comes at a price BBC News Magazine, Madeleine Morris (24/2/13)
Australia has the know-how to boost wellbeing Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade (8/9/12)
Money can’t buy you the good life Independent, Roger Dobson (24/2/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Yes, Money Does Buy Happiness: 6 Lessons from the Newest Research on Income and Well-Being The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (10/1/13)
The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/13)
Money buys happiness? I wouldn’t bank on it The Telegraph, Christopher Howse (6/2/13)
Who Says Wealth Doesn’t Buy Happiness? The Wealthy Do CNBC, Robert Frank (4/2/13)
More Proof That Money Can’t Buy Happiness Business Insider, Aimee Groth (28/1/13)
Money Changes Everything The New York Times, Adam Davidson (5/2/13)
Why are the Chinese so sad? Maclean’s (Canada), Mitch Moxley (4/2/13)
First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2/4/12)
World Happiness Report The Earth Institute, Columbia University, John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds.) (2/4/12)
Well-being evidence for policy: A review New Economics Foundation, Laura Stoll, Juliet Michaelson and Charles Seaford (3/4/12)
- Distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Is higher income a necessary or sufficient condition (or both or neither) for an increase in happiness? Does a person’s circumstances affect the answer to this question?
- Explain what is meant by ‘rational behaviour’ at the margin in the traditional economic sense?
- If a person always behaved rationally, would they be happier than if they did not? Explain.
- Explain how information asymmetry between the two or more parties involved in a transaction may make people worse off, rather than better off, even though they were behaving rationally.
- Explain what is meant by diminishing returns to income.
- Do richer countries get happier as they get richer?
- How would you set about measuring happiness?
- What do you understand by the term ‘hedonic elevation and decline’? Does this provide an accurate description of you own purchasing behaviour? If so, explain whether or not you would like to change this behaviour.
- When people make economic decisions, these are normally made with bounded rationality. How may this affect the desirability of the outcomes of the decisions?
- In explaining bankers’ behaviour, Christopher Howse (author of the second Telegraph article above) states: ‘It’s the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself. When I say “keeps them happy” I mean “feeds their addiction”. It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a little rational animal on the bare surface of the Earth lost in space.’ Do you agree? Explain why or why not.
- When people are addicted to something, would doing more of it be classed as irrational? Explain.
- Why are the Chinese so sad?
Although every recession is different (for example in terms of length and magnitude), they do tend to have a few things in common. The focus of this blog is on consumer income and how it is affected in the aftermath of (or even during) a recession. According to data from the ONS, real national income per head has fallen by more than 13% since the start of 2008.
This latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, UK incomes have fallen by much more than they did in the 2 previous recessions experienced in the UK (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). We would normally expect consumer incomes to fall during and possibly directly after a recession, as national output falls and confidence tends to be and remain low. However, the crucial thing to consider with falling consumer incomes is how it affects purchasing power. If my income is cut by 50%, but prices fall by 80%, then I’m actually better off in terms of my purchasing power.
The data from the ONS is all about purchasing power and shows how UK consumer incomes have fallen at the same time as inflation having been relatively high. It is the combination of these two variables that has been ‘eating into the value of the cash that people were earning’. Comparing the incomes in the four years after the 2008 recession with similar periods following the early 1980s and 1990s recession, the ONS has shown that this most recent recession had a much larger effect on consumer well-being. Part of this may be due to the rapid growth in incomes prior to the start of the credit crunch.
It’s not just the working population that has seen their incomes fall since 2008 – the retired population has also seen a decline in income and according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is the wealthiest portion of older households that have taken the largest hit since 2007. According to the IFS, the average person over 50 has experienced a fall in their gross wealth of about 10%, or close to £60,000. Of course for these older households, the concern is whether they will be able to make up this lost wealth before they retire. The concern for everyone is how long until incomes and purchasing power increase back to pre-crisis levels. The following articles consider this latest data on economic well-being and the impact the recession has had.
UK wellbeing still below financial crisis levels Guardian, Larry Elliott and Randeep Ramesh (23/10/12)
National income per head ‘down 13% in four years’ BBC Newsd (23/10/12)
Financial crisis hits UK retirement income Financial Times, Norma Cohen (23/10/12)
Over 50s ‘left £160,000 out of pocket by the financial crisis’ The Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/10/12)
Those near retirement in UK hit hard by crisis Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (23/10/12)
Living standards down 13pc since start of recession The Telegraph (23/10/12)
- Why is net national income per head said to be the best measure of economic well-being?
- Why is it so important to take into account inflation when measuring wellbeing?
- What explanation can be given for the larger fall in consumer incomes following the 2008 recession relative to the previous 2 recessions?
- According to data from the IFS, the richest portion of older households have suffered the most in terms of lost wealth. Why is this the case?
- What is meant by purchasing power?
- GDP has fallen by about 7%, whereas national income per head, taking inflation into account is down by over 13%. What is the explanation for these 2 different figures?
- How can recessions differ from each other? Think about the length, the magnitude of each.
- Is GDP a good measure of economic well-being? Are there any other ways we can measure it?
Economics studies scarcity and the allocation of resources. Central to societies’ economic objectives is the reduction in scarcity and central to that is economic growth. Certainly, economic growth is a major objective of all governments. They know that they will be judged by their record on economic growth.
But what do we mean by economic growth? The normal measure is growth in GDP. But does GDP measure how much a society benefits? Many people argue that GDP is a poor proxy for social benefit and that a new method of establishing the level of human well-being and happiness is necessary.
And it’s not just at macro level. As we saw in a previous news article, A new felicific calculus? happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus.
There have been three recent developments in the measurement of happiness. ‘Understanding Society’ is a £48.9m government-funded UK study following 40,000 households and is run by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. It has just published its first findings (see link below).
The second development is the work by the ONS on developing new measures of national well-being and includes a questionnaire asking about the things that matter to people and which should be included in a measure or measures of national well-being.
The third development will be an addition of five new questions to the Integrated Household Survey:
• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
But after all this, will we be any closer to getting a correct measure of human well-being? Will the results of such investigations help governments devise policy? Will the government be closer to measuring the costs and benefits of any policy decisions?
- Married for less than five years, young, childless: survey finds that’s happiness
Guardian, David Sharrock (27/2/11)
- The UK’s largest household longitudinal study launches its early findings
- Happiness Studied in Britain
MeD India (1/3/11)
- Statisticians to tackle ticklish issue of happiness
Financial Times (24/2/11)
- Survey to ask ‘How happy are you?’
BBC News (24/2/11)
- ONS happiness questions revealed
The Telegraph, Tim Ross (24/2/11)
- What makes us happy?
The Telegraph (7/3/11)
- Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ index
The Telegraph, Dean Nelson (2/3/11)
- Bhutan’s experiment with happiness
The Third Pole (China), Dipika Chhetri (25/2/11)
- Gross National Happiness: The 10 Principles
The Huffington Post (China), Nancy Chuda (24/2/11)
- You’re asking me if I’m happy? What kind of a question is that?
Independent, Natalie Haynes (26/2/11)
- Happiness = Work, sleep and bicycles
BBC News blogs, Mark Easton’s UK, Mark Easton (25/2/11)
- The Future of Consumption and Economic Growth
Minyanville, Professor Pinch and Conor Sen (14/2/11)
- Happiness: A measure of cheer
Financial Times (27/12/10)
Understanding Society site
- For what reasons might GDP be a poor measure of human well-being?
- How suitable is a survey of individuals for establishing the nation’s happiness?
- How suitable are each of the four specific questions above for measuring a person’s well-being?
- Why, do you think, has average life satisfaction not increased over the past 30 years despite a substantial increase in GDP per head?
- Give some examples of ways in which national well-being could increase for any given level of GDP. Explain why they would increase well-being.
- Should other countries follow Bhutan’s example and use a ‘groass national happiness index’ to drive economic and social policy?
- If human well-being could be accurately measured, should that be the sole driver of economic and social policy?
- Do people’s spending patterns give a good indication of the things that give them happiness?
Happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus. In fact, this analysis can be traced back to the work of the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham reffered to it as hedonic or felicific calculus (see also and also).
Now, of course, whether people actually behave in this way is an empirical question: one that behavioural and experimental economists have been investigating over a number of years. Nevertheless, it remains central to neoclassical analysis of ‘rational behaviour’.
But if happiness is central to a large part of economic analysis, how is happiness to be measured? At a micro level, this has proved problematic as it is virtually impossible to have inter-personal comparisons of utility. As a result, consumer theory uses indifference analysis, characteristics analysis, revealed preference and other approaches to analyse consumer demand.
But what about at the macro level? How is a nation’s happiness or well-being to be measured? There is general acceptance that GDP is a relatively poor proxy for national well-being and is more a measure of production. There have been various indices developed over the years (see, for example, Box 14.7 on ISEW in Economics, 7th edition) as alternatives to GDP. None has been adopted by governments, however, with the exception of a Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan.
Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in developing an index of well-being. In France, President Sarkozy commissioned two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to examine the issues in developing such a measure. In the light of the Stiglitz/Sen report, David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to measure the UK’s general well-being. The articles below look at the difficulties that could arise in producing an index of well-being, of meauring the elements and in using it for policy.
UK Prime Minister Cameron Moves on UK Happiness Index Triple Pundit, Kristina Robinson (17/11/10)
David Cameron’s happiness index finds support despite impending decade of austerity Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (16/11/10)
How can we measure happiness? Telegraph, Philip Johnston (16/11/10)
David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP Guardian, Allegra Stratton (14/11/10)
An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style Guardian, Polly Toynbee (16/11/10)
Happiness is a warm baguette? The Economist (13/1/08)
‘Stiglitz-Sen Moving in the Right Direction, but Slowly’ IPS, Hazel Henderson (18/9/09)
The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P. New York Times Magazine (13/5/10)
Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study Guardian, Alok Jha (13/12/10)
Should governments pursue happiness rather than economic growth? The Economist (25/11/10)
M&S’s Sir Stuart Rose among UK’s expert happiness panel BBC News (27/1/11)
The Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi report
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi (September 2009)
- What are the shortcomings of using GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being?
- Summarise the main findings of the Stiglitz/Sen/Fetoussi report.
- What items would be included in a happiness or well-being index that (a) are not included in GDP; (b) not included in Stiglitz and Sen’s proposed net national product measure? How would such an index be compiled?
- Would it be satisfactory to compile such an index purely on the basis of survey evidence? Why might such evidence prove unreliable?
- What are the political advantages and disadvantages of using such an index?
- Is utilitarianism the best basis for judging the progress of society?
The happiness literature has established that, in the developed countries, increasing affluence has not increased well-being in recent decades. We seek an explanation for this in terms of conspicuous consumption, a phenomenon originally identified by Veblen.
This is from the abstract of an article in the Economic Journal, ‘Well-being and Affluence in the Presence of a Veblen Good’ by B. Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran. The authors argue that while increased affluence of the rich may bring a small amount of extra benefit to them, it actually reduces the well-being of others who crave after things that they cannot afford. As the first article below states:
[The authors] believe their work shows that as a nation becomes wealthier, consumption shifts increasingly to buying status symbols with no intrinsic value – such as lavish jewellery, designer clothes and luxury cars. But they warn: “These goods represent a ‘zero-sum game’ for society: they satisfy the owners, making them appear wealthy, but everyone else is left feeling worse off.”
… There is another downside. As people yearn for more status symbols they have less time or inclination for helping others. This, the authors argue, damages “community and trust”, which are vital to an economy because they ensure the smooth running of society.
But do the super wealthy generate more jobs and more prosperity? Do we need to pay vast salaries and bonuses as incentives for executives to take risks: to invest in new products and processes, and drive technological advance and productivity increases? According to the second article, ‘Too few of the world’s billionaires can claim to be honest-to-God productive entrepreneurs who have enlarged the economic pie by dint of hard work, imagination, risk taking and innovation – although thankfully a useful proportion do populate the list.’
So is the ever widening gap between rich and poor necessary if the economy is to grow? Or is it something of very little value to society, except, perhaps, for the super rich themselves?
More money makes society miserable, warns report The Observer, Jamie Doward (14/3/10)
Don’t celebrate these billionaires, be horrified by their existence The Observer, Will Hutton (14/3/10)
For the latest Guardian survey of executive pay, see: Executive pay survey, 2009
For data on UK incomes and income distribution, see: Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) Office for National Statistics
For data on the distribution of wealth in the UK, see Distribution of Personal Wealth HM Revenue and Customs
- Explain what is meant by a ‘Veblen good’.
- What is meant by the diminishing marginal utility of income? What implications does this have for the effects of income distribution and redistribution on social well-being?
- Why may a rise in GDP make society worse off if it is accompanied by growing inequality?
- To what extent can marginal productivity theory explain the salaries and other rewards of the wealthy?
- Using the data below, examine the extent to which the gap between rich and poor is growing.
- Explain why increasing conspicuous consumption by the wealthy might be a zero-sum game for society or even a negative-sum game.
- What factors cause a rise in productivity?
- How might greater entrepreneurship be encouraged in the UK?