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What makes people happy? Check the database

Marketplace Staff Jun 27, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: How’re you feeling today? Happy? Well at least some of us are feeling a little better about the economy. The Conference Board says consumer confidence rose this month . . . good for us. But of course our lives don’t turn entirely on how we think the economy’s doing. What does make us happy? Despite our moral protestations, money apparently can buy some measure of it. But economist Kevin Hassett says that’s far from our main source of contentedness.

KEVIN HASSETT: John Stuart Mill captured the elusiveness of happiness when he argued against its direct pursuit. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” he wrote, “and you cease to be so.”

But for those of us who still want to try and capture what happiness means, there’s Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven. He directs the World Database of Happiness, an exhaustive compilation of over 1,500 surveys about self-reported happiness around the world.

Those surveys helped him develop a happiness index. So, now you can find out how much people in 90 different countries enjoy their life on a scale from 0 to 10.

The data have given economists who love to play with data something to be happy about.

The first lesson from the happiness literature is that money can indeed buy happiness. The higher a country’s income, the more likely its citizens are to tell surveyors that they are happy.

But, interestingly, money is only a small part of the story. Some countries like Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico are far happier than we might expect, given their income. Others like Ukraine and Zimbabwe are far unhappier than their income alone would suggest they should be.

So what do the places that are unusually unhappy have in common?

One key factor appears to be that they have very weak rule of law. And the unusually happy places? They tend to be countries with a high degree of religious participation. The five countries with the most surprising happiness given their income are predominantly Roman Catholic.

The impact of religious participation is enormous. Give a person religion and it increases their happiness by about the same amount as if we moved them from the bottom of the income distribution to the top.

So your chances of being happy are higher if you’re rich. But you can be happy in poverty as well.

That brings to mind concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl. He wrote that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Religion, in particular, helps individuals divorce their happiness from their worldly affairs. Money buys happiness, but you can also get it for free.

VIGELAND: Kevin Hassett is director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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