A theme at many sessions at this year’s AIF has been happiness–what it is, how you advance it, how you measure it. Fascinating. Justin Wolfers and Robert Frank had an interesting exchange on this earlier in the week, and I’m continuing to turn their arguments over in my mind.
Wolfers tore into the “Easterlin Paradox”, which is the claim that happiness does not rise with income beyond a certain point. That finding (see Richard Easterlin: Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?) gave rise to the popular view that, for rich countries at least, economic growth is a treadmill. People are struggling to improve their status, and feel happier if they succeed, but the race for status goods is zero-sum. Growth in absolute income cannot raise everybody’s relative position. It allows higher consumption but expands desires at about the same rate. The gain in happiness, if any, is small. For a rich country, the obsession with growth in GDP is an error.