Don't Worry, Be Happy…Or Die


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.