You know you’re a social science geek when you read this from The Onion and it takes you a while to realize that it is, in fact, from The Onion:
BERKELEY, CA—A study published in the latest issue of the Journal Of Social Sciences revealed that the amount of time spent being happy has dropped to an all-time low of 13 nonconsecutive seconds per day. “According to our data, the average American experiences a 0.8-second window of happiness upon awakening, before remembering that they’re conscious beings in a relentlessly bleak and numbing world,” said Dr. Derek Moore, lead author of the paper. “Other periods of happiness include 1.9 seconds after a good meal; 0.6 seconds upon receiving a paycheck; 1.1 seconds following completion of a scientific study; and the 2.5 seconds approaching orgasm, just before the guilt sets in.” Researchers also recorded the smallest period of contentment yet, a 3.7-millisecond interval preceding the realization that one was experiencing happiness and that it could not possibly last.
(Apparently I’m not the only one. Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution puts a “Not from The Onion” disclaimer on some of his posts. I am convinced that one of these days there is going to be a bizarre coincidence where The Onion inadvertently reports accurate news.)
When you think about it, the Onion article isn’t really that far off from reality. Social scientists (including economists) do in fact study happiness, including both what makes us happy on an abstract level (see Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness or Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier, for example.) and what trends in happiness look like from a historical perspective.
Economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson spent the bulk of their careers studying happiness, and they have a number of interesting findings. First and foremost, they gravitate towards the time-honored economic question of Does Money Buy Happiness?:
If anything, Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers say, absolute income seems to matter more than relative income. In the United States, about 90 percent of people in households making at least $250,000 a year called themselves “very happy” in a recent Gallup Poll. In households with income below $30,000, only 42 percent of people gave that answer. But the international polling data suggests that the under-$30,000 crowd might not be happier if they lived in a poorer country.
This is in contrast to a finding known as the Easterlin paradox, which states that, although the wealthiest people in a society are generally the happiest, the wealthiest people in the richest societies don’t report to be happier than the richest people in less well-off societies. This observed paradox is used to posit that it is relative income that matters for happiness, and that we are on a sort of hedonic treadmill that requires us to obtain new and exciting toys in order to maintain the happiness status quo. (I’ve written before about Louis CK and the hedonic treadmill here.)
So money does buy happiness…like I always expected, of course. (insert evil laugh here) Or, at the very least, the jury is still out on the matter. Betsey Stevenson dives even further into the matter and reports that, despite the fact that women have gotten a lot of objective gains in terms of equal rights, lifestyle choices, and so on, they report themselves to be less happy than they were 30 years ago:
Given all these changes, the evidence presented by Stevenson and Wolfers is striking: women report being less happy today than they were 35 years ago, especially relative to the corresponding happiness rates for men. This is true of working women and stay-at-home moms, married women and those that are single, the highly educated and the less educated. It is worse for older women; those aged 18-29 don’t seem to be doing too badly. Women with kids have fared worse than women without kids. The only notable exception to the pattern is black women, who are happier today than they were three decades ago.
Well then. Let’s at least hope that women are happy for more than 13 seconds a day, since I really hate it when The Onion is right.