Gintis on Happiness
By Bryan Caplan
The great American vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker remarked, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor—and believe me, rich is better.” This book… contrasts Sophie Tucker’s widely shared sentiment with the carefully researched fact that people are getting richer, but they are not getting happier…
An earlier generation answered this question by noting that being richer involves both having more than before, and having more than others. If relative status is important but absolute wealth is not, argued Robert Frank (1985), then when everyone becomes richer, average well-being will not increase… While relative status is clearly important for some individuals, there is no convincing evidence that it of great importance to most individuals. Certainly many individuals are eager to become a smaller frog in a larger pond by moving to a richer community, and the rate of migration from poor to rich countries is hardly favorable to the relative status hypothesis. Moreover this “hedonic treadmill” explanation ran afoul of the data in a brilliant study by Brickman et al. (1978). They found that large exogenously-generated changes in material circumstances, such as winning the lottery or becoming handicapped through accident exhibit little difference in subjective well-being even several months thereafter. The general implication of this line of research is that some people are happy and some are unhappy, and changes in wealth position has little long run effect on their subjective well-being.
This review even contains a quote that I really wish I could have put in my book:
I recall my concern for such issues in writing my Ph.D. dissertation some forty years ago, the head quote of which was from the jazz pianist Mose Allison, who wrote “things are getting better and better. It’s people I’m worried about.”
The funny thing is that – at least to me – even people seem a lot better than they used to be – smarter, funnier, more decent, more creative. This could be an age effect (people improve with age), a selection effect (I’ve been able to track down people more to my liking), or a memory illusion (I think the grass was always browner in the past). But it could also be an honest-to-goodness change. What do you think?
P.S. Gintis has written over a hundred Amazon reviews. If you’ll allow me to review a reviewer, most are quite good.