According to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word “no.” The “law,” named after British journalist Ian Betteridge, is intended to be humorous rather than a literal truth.
And, in the case of my title “Is Life Getting Better?” a negative answer would certainly be wrong. Life is definitely getting better. That is a central theme in Steven Pinker’s book “Enlightenment Now,” particularly with regard to his discussion of quality of life and happiness issues in chapters 17 and 18, which I will appropriate for this column. “Think of it this way: The average American now retires at age 62. One hundred years ago, the average American died at age 51.”
That makes the case that life is getting longer; but is it getting better? Consider this. One measure social scientists use to gauge quality of life is the time we must spend earning a living versus the time we can dedicate to leisure activities. The 60 hour work week of years past is now history and, whereas in 1929 Americans spent more than 60% of their income on necessities, that figure is now closer to 33%. We have the time and the income to afford more leisure, but are we happier?
It may surprise the reader to learn that there is a branch of economics dedicated to the study of happiness. Happiness economics is defined as the “quantitative and theoretical study of happiness, positive and negative affect, well-being, quality of life, life satisfaction, and related concepts, typically combining economics with other fields such as psychology, health, and sociology.”
Historically, economists have held that, within a given country, people with higher income were happier. That is, well-being was viewed as a function of income. Extrapolating from this, national financial measures such as gross domestic product (GDP) were believed to correlate positively with a nation’s happiness. Citizens of wealthier nations were assessed as happier than those in poorer nations.
But in 1974, professor of economics Richard Easterlin compiled data showing that happiness was not significantly associated with GDP per capita among developed nations. His work became known as the Easterlin Paradox. According to Easterlin, comparisons within a country show that, richer people are happier. But, in international comparisons, richer nations did not appear happier that poorer nations. The Easterlin Paradox controversy continues to this day.
However, more recent and more detailed data seem to show Easterlin was wrong. People in richer countries are indeed happier, and people do get happier as their country gets richer. Happiness economists hope to provide insights to influence the way governments view the well-being of their citizens and the national allocation of resources.
To be sure, there are factors other than income that influence happiness. The World Happiness Report 2016 identified other considerations with regard to national happiness such as: social support of friends or relatives that we can count on in times of trouble, our generosity, and our perception of the corruption in our communities. In aggregate, the data show that as countries get richer, life is getting better for more and more people.
Most important of all, we are happier when we are free to choose what to do with our lives. As Pinker points out, in theory freedom and happiness are independent of each other. In practice, however, “freedom and the other good things in life go together.” The level of happiness in a country is correlated with the free choice and control people have over their lives. Freedom, like good health, is a prerequisite for a meaningful life, although the uncertainty of freedom may add to our anxieties.
Professor Angus Deaton, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on poverty, well-being, and economic development, has also identified an “age effect” on happiness. As we get older we tend to become happier. Apparently, as we age, and once we pass our middle age crisis, we become wiser, and are better able to put our lives in perspective.
I agree. And life is certainly getting better as I celebrate the 20th anniversary of my 50th birthday.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”