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Economics of Happiness: An Interview with Richard Easterlin

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“There’s a fair proportion of economists that will dismiss this out of hand as heresy,” Richard Easterlin, renowned “father” of the economics of happiness and namesake of the controversial Easterlin Paradox, told me. “But on the other hand, as you know, the Sarkozy Report came out about 2008.”

The Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2008), or, as Easterlin put it, the “Sarkozy Report,” was a speculative paper commissioned by Nicolas Sarkozy, then-president of France, “to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress … [and] assess the feasibility of alternative measurement tools.” Tasked with reporting on these initiatives was Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, with close advisement from fellow Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Neo-Keynesian economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi.

Easterlin best articulated the significance of the Sarkozy Report in his widely popular response paper “Policy Implications of the Sarkozy Report” (2010). The paper delineated four primary economic measurements contained in the report:

  1. Production (GDP)
  2. Economic well-being (material living level)
  3. Overall well-being (of which economic well-being is one of eight components)
  4. Well-being of current vs. future generations (“sustainability”)

It should come as no surprise that Easterlin, who has dedicated the greater part of his academic career to the economics of happiness, would mark the third item as the Sarkozy Report’s most substantive contribution. In fact, this report is a familiar document to students of his economics of happiness course at USC due to its significance as a milestone for the happiness and well-being branches of behavioral economics.

Having begun research on the topic of subjective well-being (SWB) in the early 1970s, Easterlin found true validation in an international effort to explore policy implications of the economics of happiness.

“It was indicative of the fact that there really has been a major paradigm shift where economists increasingly are willing to listen to what people say. Sometimes it’s just political attitudes,” said Easterlin. “But as I said, it has taken off. So it’s really been, from my point of view, quite surprising, but at the same time rewarding because it makes me feel like people are paying attention to this, and this is very important.”

Throughout his academic career, Easterlin has faced criticism from voices across mainstream economics, informed by the disciplinary dictum that “economists don’t care about what people say, [they] only observe what people do.” For example, unemployment data – which Easterlin views as a self-reported, falsifiable metric – remains unimpeachable in the established paradigm of economics.

“You inherit it, and you don’t question it,” Easterlin said. “But new things come along, and you question them pretty severely if they run counter to the paradigm as happiness did. Not just in terms of its relationship to economic growth, which made it doubly hard to understand, but simply because it was accepting what people had to say about their well-being.”

Easterlin’s rejection of the academic status quo manifested itself in his declaration of the Easterlin Paradox, which challenged one of the fundamental tenets of economics: that more money leads to higher happiness. In the short run, Easterlin found that higher income does indeed correlate to a higher level of happiness; however, after acknowledging available data on the long-run relationship between happiness and income, he found no significant positive correlation. Easterlin’s explication of the inconsistency between cross-sectional and long-run time series data brought him fame and put his research at the center of charged debates between economists, behavioral and classical.

The research that Easterlin has conducted is highly empirical, constructed with data compiled over decades from multinational populations. For example, Easterlin has challenged notions that transitions from Soviet-style socialism to capitalism increases life satisfaction. While data from social scientist Hadley Cantril, author of “Soviet Leaders and Mastery over Man,” showed that there is a massive decline in life satisfaction following the collapse of a socialist nation, his research failed to include later-released data showing that life satisfaction existed at “fairly high happiness” leading up to the collapse. This suggests that it was not the socialist system per se that decreased life satisfaction, but rather political factors that compromised the stable period of high happiness. Of course, political factors are related to economic systems, but in Easterlin’s reckoning, whichever economic system maximizes the dimensions of SWB should be pursued.

“I didn’t start out with the view that socialism had any redeeming features or that the welfare state was a superior situation. As the evidence has accumulated, it’s becoming increasingly meaningful,” Easterlin said. “At the individual level, evidence seems to suggest at the extent you sacrifice your family and your health to make money, intuitively it’s not going to do much for your happiness. Whereas to the extent you try to achieve a reasonable balance, you know, put a lot more weight on your family life, exercise … the happier you’re going to be. But what we can do is have economic growth in which the incremental resources, instead of being left to the individual via consumer sovereignty as to how they are used, are determined much more by governmental intervention. Healthcare policy, schooling, maternity leave, paternity leave, provisions for old people – that is sort of a cradle-to-grave welfare policy you have in Scandinavia. They have high rates of growth as the Western world goes – Scandinavia is as good or better than most countries, including the U.S.”

Fiscal policies and fundamental beliefs in theories of government clearly divide those aligned with Easterlin and those who fare libertarian or right-of-center. But to Easterlin, there’s no mistaking it: a healthy work-life balance determines high quality of life, and Scandinavian economic systems provide the healthiest work-life balance recordings, and thus, the happiest reported populations.

When asked which measures could be taken to foster research conducted in his field, Easterlin focused on empirics.

“We still need a lot more specifics and data about policies that are conducive to happiness, [like] family policies,” said Easterlin. “So my feeling is that [the future] is trying to get better insight into those things, and probably also into broader questions on civil rights. And I think it’s interdisciplinary. I think you need to know something about political science, and that’s where the commodification of labor comes in.”

Easterlin concluded: “You know I think with all these studies, people need to be attuned to them and educated [on them] in order to make holistic statements about what happiness and welfare are about, and I feel we are progressing.”

____________

To read more about welfare economics, Easterlin suggests:

The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State

Edited by Francis G. Castles, Stephan Leibfried, Jane Lewis, Herbert Obinger and Christopher Pierson

“Produced entirely by political scientists. Not one economist in that one or sociologist. But it’s indicative that the study of the welfare state is much more a private thing in the field of political science. [Additionally, it addresses] the political socialization process, and other psychological mechanisms.”

I would also suggest:

Happiness, Growth, and the Life Cycle

by Richard Easterlin

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