Friday, September 19, 2008

US Happiness Inequality Decreasing

Despite the fact that income inequality — the chasm between rich and poor — has grown to levels rarely seen outside the third world, happiness inequality in the United States seems to have declined sharply over the past 35 years. And that is not because everyone is just that much more cheerful.

According to new research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the happiness gap between blacks and whites has fallen by two-thirds since the early 1970s. The gender gap (women used to be happier than men) has disappeared. Most significant, the disparity in happiness within demographic groups has also shrunk: the unhappiest 25 percent of the population has gotten a lot happier. The happiest quarter is less cheerful.

It seems odd that happiness would become more egalitarian over a period in which the share of the nation’s income sucked in by the richest 1 percent of Americans rose from 7 percent to 17 percent. In fact, the report does find a growing happiness gap between Americans with higher levels of education and those with less, which is roughly in line with the widening pay gap between the skilled and unskilled.
Is decreasing happiness inequality a good thing?

I would say that it is not really important. Happiness inequality would go down if the "very happy" people became "pretty happy" people, but I don't think this would be a good thing at all. Likewise, if all the pretty happy people became very happy, this would increase happiness inequality, but would be a really good thing. Instead, I would focus on average happiness level and trying to increase it and trying to get the number of "not too happy" down as far as it will go.

With income, many believe that the rich get rich at the expense of the poor, and therefore decreasing inequality is a good thing. But, I wonder if they believe the same with happiness? Do they think that happy people are happy because unhappy people are unhappy?

More on the report here, here and here.

via NY Times

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