Gwern has an excellent essay on how everything is correlated, and very rarely does the correlation imply causation.  I was reminded of that essay when I read this tweet:

In addition to male and female happiness since the Sexual Revolution, those graph also show male and female happiness . . .

1. over 50 years of economic growth

2.  since Nixon’s War on Drugs was initiated

3.  since abortion was legalized

4.  since divorce laws were liberalized

5.  during a period of increasing civil rights for women, blacks and gays

6.  during a period where computers increasingly dominated our lives

7.  during a period where families became smaller

8.  since the creation of the EPA and OSHA

9.  during a period where our politics became increasingly polarized

So why does Ross Douthat single out the Sexual Revolution?  Is it because he doesn’t like the Sexual Revolution, for reasons essentially unrelated to this happiness survey?

I don’t happen to believe the reported happiness data tells us much of anything about the actual happiness experienced by humans.  If asked how happy I was, I wouldn’t even know how to answer the question.  Compared to what?  I have no idea how happy other people are, and hence have no “baseline” to give a zero to 10 rating for myself.  Perhaps modern media outlets present an increasingly dazzling image of the good life experienced by the rich and famous, making people who are just as happy as in 1970 rate their well being lower than they would have 50 years ago.  Almost anything is possible.

For the sake of argument, lets assume that reported happiness does tell us something meaningful.  Most of those nine listed factors obviously had little impact on reported happiness.  Is there a “story” where the Sexual Revolution could explain these changes?  Sure, there are lots of stories.  Some have argued that the Sexual Revolution helped attractive men at the expense of women, which might explain the bigger decline in reported female happiness.  But two points are worth noting.  First, male happiness also declined.  Second, male happiness now equals female happiness.  Is that a good thing?  Again, I don’t trust the data. But if it is to be taken seriously, has the Sexual Revolution given us gender equality?

It might seem bizarre to claim that economic growth made us less happy.  Don’t people enjoy having more goods and services?   Yes, but couldn’t the same be said about sex?  The argument that the Sexual Revolution reduced happiness obviously needs some nuance, some indirect effects.

While there are plausible stories about how the Sexual Revolution might have made us less happy, I could just as easily invent stories where economic growth made us less happy.  Much of our recent economic growth has been driven by the computer revolution.  Perhaps we used to socialize in bowling leagues, and now we sit at home all alone and use social media to obsess over how other people have more friends and better vacations than we do.  Note that the Sexual Revolution was at its peak around 1980, whereas male and female happiness took a big drop after the early 2000s, just as social media was ramping up

Would Tyler Cowen have retweeted a tweet indicating that happiness was declining as computer use increased?

Do I believe that economic growth makes us less happy?  Not really, or at least I’m agnostic on the issue.  Just as I don’t believe any other explanation for why we are less happy.  Indeed, I don’t even believe that we are less happy. 

Ironically, I often play the contrarian in the opposite direction, claiming that economic growth has not boosted happiness and justifying that belief by pointing to the fact that people don’t seem any happier than when I was young.  But they also don’t seem less happy than before.  When it comes to happiness, agnosticism seems like the most sensible attitude.

PS.  Elsewhere I’ve argued that classical liberalism is the system that maximizes human happiness.  Since 1970, we’ve liberalized in some directions (gay rights, marijuana) and gone backward in others (the TSA, tobacco).   Net change?  Hard to say.  Are we happier?  Hard to say.  Are we less happy?  Hard to say.