International Economics

Don't Worry, Be Happy…Or Die

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A new paper shores up the idea that some countries really are happier than others. The paper, just out from the National Bureau of Economic Research, ties troublesomely subjective measures of happiness to hard numbers about hypertension. Previous studies have shown that high blood pressure correlates inversely with psychological well-being. Low blood pressure countries like Sweden and Denmark are also happy countries. Hypertensive countries like East Germany and Finland are depressive.

The paper is astonishingly well-written for an academic product, with an easy, accessible voice, courtesy of Dartmouth's David G. Blanchflower and/or University of Warwick's Andrew J. Oswald. If you're a nerd and you actually click though on these links to NBER papers, I particularly recommend doing so for this one. A sample:

Happy countries seem to have less hypertension. This has a number of implications. First, it suggests that there may be a case to take seriously the subjective 'happiness' measurements made across the world: they follow a pattern like the (inverse of) high-blood-pressure estimates. Second, in constructing new kinds of economic and social policies in the future, where well-being rather than real income is likely to be a prime concern, there are grounds for economists to study people's blood pressure.

However, the authors want their paper to carry an awfully heavy burden. "For effective social and economic policies to be designed," they write in the introduction, "it is necessary for policymakers to be able to measure human well-being." The paper offers a neat (and neatly objective) proxy for happiness–blood pressure–but broad measures of well-being give almost no information to policy makers about what they ought to do to encourage more happiness without subtracting happiness in other areas.

Read the whole paper here and the NBER abstract here.

For more on the debate about quantifying happiness, check out Will Wilkinson's musings in Reason here, and also this.

NEXT: Egg Donors to the Back of the Bus!

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  1. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you cheer up.

  2. That will lower your blood pressure.

  3. “Hypertensive countries like East Germany and Finland are depressive.”

    East Germany?

    1982 called, they want their happiness study back.

  4. My pressure goes through the roof when I click on a hyperlink that takes me back to a site I’d just clicked on several lines above. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh! *gasp* * gasp * * gasp *

  5. Don’t Worry Be Happy was a number one jam
    Damn, if I say it you can slap me right here

  6. My blood pressure is higher than it’s ever been. Undoubtedly due to, spending every day on my ass and stuffing my face whenever I feel like it. I’ve never been happier in my adult life. Undoubtedly for the exact same reasons.

  7. People have the right–but more importantly, the obligation–to be happy. Clearly, letting them define happiness for themselves is silly–they might decide that what makes them happy is unhealthy food, watching television, solitude, and material possessions. (Like someone I could mention.) That won’t do. I welcome this study. It supports what I have been asserting for some time. And I will put it to good use.

  8. “Happy countries seem to have less hypertension. This has a number of implications. First, it suggests that there may be a case to take seriously …”

    I wonder about the validity of a report that is written entirely in the hypothetical. “Happy countries seem to have less hypertension [BUT WE DON’T KNOW IF THIS IS TRUE]. This has a number of implications [THAT IS, IT WOULD HAVE IMPLICATIONS IF IT WERE TRUE].”

    As for “First, it suggests that there may be a case to take seriously …,” well, I’ve seen research that suggests that there may be a case to take seriously the hypothesis that it’s OK to lick a railroad track when the temperature is ten below, but I’m still going to skip it.

    Remember Hamlet? “Nay, madam, I know not ‘seems.'” Avoid research that uses this word.

  9. “. . . in constructing new kinds of economic and social policies in the future, where well-being rather than real income is likely to be a prime concern, there are grounds for economists to study people’s blood pressure.”

    Prediction: 1) Raising the standard yearly income tax deduction to $50k (or higher) will lower a lot of people’s blood pressure. Most people will not have to pay income taxes at all, and will not have to suffer the blood-boiling indignity of “voluntarily” calculating and reporting their tax liability, and forking over big chunks of the modest fruits of their own honest labor to the government.
    2) Expanding inheritance taxes on the unearned “income” of heirs (to make up, if absolutely necessary, part of the revenue shortfall due to the aforesaid income tax cut) should not raise the blood pressure of heirs or their parents by anywhere near the savings in blood pressure caused by the aforesaid income tax cut.

    Result: greatest happiness for the greatest number of Americans.

  10. Scott Stein raises my blood pressure.

  11. Happiness research is crap. It doesn’t even rise to the level of pseudoscience.

  12. Happiness research is crap

    Then so are researches about the effects of terrorism on people.

  13. Aspirin is the answer, it reduces BP and it helps with the headaches caused by the “effective social and economic policies.”

  14. “Expanding inheritance taxes on the unearned “income” of heirs (to make up, if absolutely necessary, part of the revenue shortfall due to the aforesaid income tax cut) should not raise the blood pressure of heirs or their parents by anywhere near the savings in blood pressure caused by the aforesaid income tax cut.

    Result: greatest happiness for the greatest number of Americans.”

    I’m not sure if I like the idea of the government redistributing blood pressure. Utilitarian social calculus went out of style in the 1800’s dude.

  15. So, clearly, leeches are the answer. Lower the blood volume and the blood pressure will drop, leading to more happiness.

    All along, politicians have followed this policy financially. Now, they know that they should be following it corporeally.

  16. This research does seem flimsy. Even so, I would like to see something replace gdp and even personal income as the accepted measures of well being. GDP is useful for measuring the size of an economy, but it is not a proxy for happiness. I believe policy makers concerned with the public interest (stipulated) would do well to take a broader view of how to measure success.

  17. Then so are researches about the effects of terrorism on people.

    Probably also crap, and also stupid. What kind of fool thinks that terrorism has anything other than negative effects on people. It hurts people; it scares people; some people likely have long-term stress, depression, and general fear after a terrorist attack. I think that it is occasionally okay to assume some things, like the obvious.

    What’s next? “We’re researching the effects of poking people in the eye. Results: it hurts, news at 11.”

  18. Waiting in brethless anticipation for the follow up to tell us how much my blood pressure is raised when my neighbor parks a BMW next to my Sentra.

  19. high blood pressure is also a proxy for the age of society…the longer a countries citizens are the higher the average blood pressure….also the longer the citizens live the wealthier they tend to be…so you would have study that automatically makes wealthy nations unhappy…

    I call bullshit.

  20. Define “happy”.

    A happy pin ball player could have some really freaking high blood pressure.

    First, Nanny taught us to hate not. Then, she taught us how to be happy…..

    I smell Big Brother’s alter ego.

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