Decline Watch: Are happy days here again?

Decline Watch: Are happy days here again?

It’s not all doom and gloom here at decline watch. We keep our eyes out for signs of recovery as well. Via Marginal Revolution, here a new paper from Princeton University’s Angus Deaton, showing that Americans’ contentment levels have returned to where they were before the crash. From the abstract:

In the fall of 2008, around the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and lasting into the spring of 2009, at the bottom of the stock market, Americans reported sharp declines in their life evaluation, sharp increases in worry and stress, and declines in positive affect. By the end of 2010, in spite of continuing high unemployment, these measures had largely recovered,
though worry remained higher and life evaluation lower than in January 2008. 

Decline-o-meter score:


This sounds great until you read into Deaton’s conclusions, which substantially undercut the usefulness of this data. First of all, this may just show that Americans are adapting to their circumstances:

If people become accustomed to economic misery, so that the response of SWB to such pain is only temporary, the continuing harm is no less real nor demanding of policy attention just because people say that they are used to it. Sen (1985, 14) notes that “a person who is ill-fed, undernourished, unsheltered, and ill can still be high up in the scale of happiness or desire fulfillment if he or she has learned to have `realistic’ desires and to take pleasures in small mercies.” 

Taking a look at the world’s top 20 happiest countries, according to Gallup’s data, you get a sense of what this means. Yes, the top five consist of the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands — the teacher’s pets of international development statistics — but the U.S. is also outranked by several much poorer countries, such as Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil, as well as one with a much higher level of political strife: Israel. Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most repressive states, cracks the top 20, though I have my doubts about the reliability of polling there.

Deaton concludes:

In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St. Valentine’s Day than to a doubling of unemployment, are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread.  

Perhaps it’s time to get the good folks at Hallmark working on some new holidays?

Frankly, the idea that Americans are becoming so accustomed to the idea of economic distress that they’re not even that unhappy about it anymore is actually more depressing.