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Sociology in the News - The Paradox of Happiness

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

Via Context Crawler, comes this article from the Washington Post, by Shankar Vedantam on happiness surveys. We take it for granted, and it is supported by surveys, that people tend to be happier when their economic situation is more secure and overall better. That is fairly uncontroversial. And right now, the economy stinks, gas prices are through the roof, so, the mood is on the gloomy side. Straightforward as well. If the economy were better, people would be happier. What is the paradox then?

"If that's true, then it ought to follow that America should be much happier today than it was a generation ago -- it is much wealthier.

The question of whether the country is happier today than it was in, say, 1970 turns out to have a surprisingly good empirical answer. For nearly four decades, researchers have regularly asked a large sample of Americans a simple question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?"

The results are sobering. Even before the current economic downturn, the United States, on average, was less happy than it was in 1970, even though it is vastly richer."

Hence the paradox. Except that it does not sound much of a paradox to me. I'm not an academic big shot published in the Wapo but I can see several explanations based on sociological theories and data even before reading the rest of the article:

First, yes, this country is richer, but it does not mean that the increased riches have been shared by all. We know the United States has become more unequal than it was 30 years ago. So, the people surveyed now may feel poorer than people in the same social classes in the 1970s because the overall increased wealth has not materialized for them. (H/T Lambert for the graph)

Second, there is a difference between wealth and economic security. One's income may have gone up overall, but if one's position is not secured, always on the verge of a layoff or other corporate nefarious event, one might not register greater happiness in a survey. Stress (economic or social) does not make people happy.

Third, ever heard of relative deprivation theory? Let me explain:

Relative deprivation theory, developed by Denton Morrison (1971) is a more general theory about why individuals join social movements. A person experiences relative deprivation when she feels that she is not receiving her “fair share” of what seems to be available. Therefore, the people who are the worst off are not necessarily the ones experiencing relative deprivation.

For instance, research in the Civil Rights movement showed that African Americans who were the most active were not most deprived but were fairly well-off, such as college students or religious leaders but they were the ones who felt the most relatively deprived.

Key to the idea of relative deprivation is the notion of expectations, that is, what people think they deserve and want in life. If these expectations are met, people do not experience discontent or relative deprivation. On the other hand, if people compare themselves to their reference groups and find that they have less, they will experience relative deprivation. If an individual feels that everyone else seems to be wealthier or generally seems to have it better, they will experience relative deprivation.

A second key to the idea of relative deprivation is the notion of legitimate expectations. Relative deprivation is not simply the idea that people want what everyone else has. It is the idea that they think they deserve it and have a right to it. Therefore, if they do not get what they think they deserve, they think that something should be done to remedy the situation.

In other words, expectations are not simple desires. For relative deprivation to emerge, individuals have to perceive their expectations as legitimate.

A third key is the notion of blocked expectations, those goals that individuals cannot meet through conventional means. Feelings of relative deprivation result. If expectations are perceived as legitimate AND easy to satisfy, there is no need for social movement. However, if expectations are perceived as legitimate but blocked, individuals will experience discontent and frustration. They will be more likely to want to remedy an unfair situation.

Morrison also identifies structural conditions that increase the probability of emergence of social movements (Locher, 2002:256-257):

  1. Large numbers of people must experience relative deprivation;
  2. There must be a high degree of interaction and communication between people experiencing relative deprivation;
  3. The more socially alike individuals experiencing relative deprivation, the easier it will be for them to get together and create a movement;
  4. Movements are more likely to form in a rigidly stratified society because differences between classes are obvious.
  5. The society must have large numbers of voluntary associations to give people a sense that collective activity can make a difference and actually produce beneficial change. Also, a social movement benefits from organizational leadership skills of associations.

So, people may be objectively wealthier but feel more relatively deprived as they compare their lifestyle to those that have really become incredibly wealthier. And with increased income also comes rising expectations that are more likely to be disappointed.

And fourth, related to the first three, let us not forget the cultural argument. Since the Reagan era, we have been socialized through many media to associate happiness with material possessions but if we cannot keep up, again, disappointment and unhappiness might ensue. Actually, again, studies have shown that what makes us happy is social relationships, as well as a sense of agency and control over our own lives.

Not much of a paradox anymore.

But back to the article, let's see how the paradox is explored and maybe resolved:

"Economist Richard A. Easterlin at the University of Southern California was among the first to notice the paradoxical disconnect between a nation's economic growth and the growth of its happiness. The "Easterlin Paradox" was once thought to be limited to rich, Western countries -- but researcher Hilke Brockmann and his colleagues at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, recently showed that even as China has experienced extraordinary growth between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Chinese who "described themselves as very happy plummeted from 28 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2000." (...)

Easterlin attributes the phenomenon of happiness levels not keeping pace with economic gains to the fact that people's desires and expectations change along with their material fortunes. Where an American in 1970 may have once dreamed about owning a house, he or she might now dream of owning two. Where people once dreamed of buying a new car, they now dream of buying a luxury model."

Ok, relative deprivation, check.

"The irony is that health and the quality of personal relationships are among the most potent predictors of whether people report they are happy -- and they are often the two things people sacrifice in their pursuit of greater wealth. Nations, Easterlin argues, make the same mistake as people."

Got that one too. But then comes the controversy: some sociologist disagrees with the economist (which, in the grand hierarchy of academia just ain't supposed to happen, economists are the real scientists after all!):

"Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist in the Netherlands and the director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that wealth is actually a very reliable predictor of happiness. If you take a snapshot of people in different countries, he argues, the data shows that people in Denmark, Switzerland and Austria report being happier than people in the Philippines, India and Iran, and the people in those nations report being happier than those in Armenia, Ukraine and Zimbabwe."

Again, no mystery here either. The "happy" countries are not just wealthier, they are more socially more secure thanks to generous social policies that help people worry less about possible harship, knowing that there is a strong safety net should something happen to them. They are also politically democratic, with high levels of political participation (again sense of agency and control over one's life), and stable.

Geez, is it really that mysterious why people in Zimbabwe and Iran might not be too happy? All in all, there is really nothing new in this article, that hasn't been explored in sociological research for the past thirty years. It would be nice if journalists kept track of these things rather than have them pop up every few years and present as big discoveries or controversies what anyone in the field, including lowly community college sociologist me, could have told them years ago.

Don't get me wrong, I love research on happiness because it brings me back to Durkheim's study on suicide. It is always interesting to show that what we tend to think of as psychological / individual phenomena quite often have strong social (social, economic, political) causes and consequences. But it would be nice if journalists did not ignore entire fields of social research.

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Submitted by lambert on

Yep, Bill Gates walks into the room, and the happiness average immediately increases wildly.

Seriously, FrenchDoc, there's a lot of food for thought, here, and I hope you'll keep these analytical tools working.

I mean, why elect people who are going to make us unhappy?

[x] Very tepidly voting for Obama [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

My sociology 101 course over here at Corrente, that would be an innovative format! :-)