Who's Counting: Health, Wealth and Happiness

Measuring happiness is an increasingly popular, yet even more daunting task than measuring wealth. White notes, "The concept of happiness, or satisfaction with life, is currently a major area of research in economics and psychology, most closely associated with new developments in positive psychology." Nonetheless, there's a long way to go. Cultural differences, for example, might influence people's willingness to state that they're happy. This certainly would be true among groups in which modesty and self-effacement are highly valued. Also there's the obvious distinction between an acute immediate feeling of happiness and a more general feeling of contentment.

These and other provisos aside, White's meta-analysis of the many studies he considered shows that three factors were most crucial in predicting how happy people would claim to be: health, then wealth and access to education.

He concludes, "There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy."

For what it's worth, the ranking of the 15 happiest nations in the World is: 1-Denmark; 2-Switzerland; 3-Austria; 4-Iceland; 5-The Bahamas; 6-Finland; 7-Sweden; 8-Bhutan; 9-Brunei; 10-Canada; 11-Ireland; 12-Luxembourg; 13-Costa Rica; 14-Malta; 15-The Netherlands

The US was 23rd, the UK 41st, Russia 167th, and the three least happy countries were: 176-Democratic Republic of the Congo; 177-Zimbabwe; 178-Burundi.

A Counterintuitive Study

Although the above studies have interesting details, their general thrust is not especially astonishing. More counterintuitive is a study by Stanford School of Medicine researchers published last month in the American Journal of Public Health. Succinctly put, its conclusion is that poor people who live in rich neighborhoods die at significantly higher rates than do poor people who don't.

The researchers, led by Professor Marilyn Winkleby of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, were themselves surprised by their results. "We tend to assume that people living in a high socioeconomic status neighborhood are well off," but "every way we looked at the data, we found the same result." The data included 8,200 men and women living in 82 neighborhoods in Monterey, Modesto, Salinas and San Luis Obispo, California.

The effect was particularly pronounced among women. The death rate was 19 per 1000 women of low socioeconomic status living in rich neighborhoods over the 17 years of the study compared with 11 per 1000 such women from poor neighborhoods.

One possible explanation offered by Winkleby is economic. The cost of living in rich neighborhoods might have left poor people with little money to spend on good food and health care. Or maybe services offered in poor neighborhoods were lacking in rich ones.

Another way to account for the results is psychological. As Winkleby noted, "You look out every day and you're at the bottom of the social ladder." Such status issues may induce or exacerbate stress-related conditions.

An awareness of the latter possibility is one reason some people opt to retire to poorer communities or countries. A small American pension in Mexico or Thailand, for example, might afford one high status and allow one to live very well, whereas the same money in New York might pay for a studio apartment and a Broadway play every six years.

The bottom line is that measuring health, wealth, and happiness is very tricky, but getting even a rough quantitative handle on these complicated, qualitative, and imprecise notions is nevertheless important.

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