Conditions of Happiness, Kluwer Academic, 1984, Dordrecht/Boston.
Abstract Chapter 6
HAPPINESS AND LIVING CONDITIONS
Living conditions are generally believed to determine happiness to a large extent. When
asked what would make them happier, people usually respond in terms of 'more affluence',
'better work', 'finer family relations' and sometimes 'a better society'. There are indeed
considerable differences in happiness between people living in different conditions.
However, these differences do not always correspond with current beliefs.
Characteristics of society
There are currently great differences in average happiness in the various parts of the
world. People in Asia and Africa are typically least happy, while inhabitants of western
nations tend to be most satisfied with life. Within the western world there are also
striking differences. people in France, W-Germany and Italy are for instance less happy
than people in Australia, Scandinavia and the US. These differences appeared fairly stable
through time. Unfortunately no data are available for the communists countries.
Surprisingly nobody has, as yet, tried to identify the social system characteristics that
are responsible for these differences. A lust look reveals strong statistical
relationships with several economic and political features. Alas, there are as yet hardly
any comparable data on cultural characteristics of the nations concerned here.
- Economic characteristics
The available data allow an assessment of the relation between average happiness in
nations and four economic characteristics: 'economic prosperity', 'economic growth',
'economic security' and 'income equality'.
As far as economic prosperity is concerned, the data leave no doubt that people in poor
countries are currently less happy than inhabitants of the affluent nations. In fact a
more or less curvilinear relationship appears: the correspondence between average
happiness and gross-national product per capita being more pronounced in the poorest part
of the world than in the richest one. As such it neatly reflects the law of diminishing
returns. It is not impossible that the correlation is largely spurious, happiness actually
depending on matters that happen to parallel affluence, such as 'political freedom' and
'democracy'. As far as economic prosperity is the cause, it seems to add most forcibly to
happiness to the extent that it forestalls unbearable material discomfort. Within the
poorest part of the world, there is at least a strong correlation between happiness and
the percentage of people living in 'extreme poverty' and the percentage of people
suffering from 'hunger'. It is as yet not specified to what extent further 'luxury' adds
to the appreciation of life or how it might do so.
In some countries economic growth over a 15 year period appeared to be paralleled
by a rise in average happiness. However, in some others it was not. It is as yet unclear
in what conditions economic growth adds most to happiness and how. Longitudinal data on
the effects of economic depression are not yet available.
Contrary to common suggestion, average happiness does not appear particularly high in the
nations that provide most economic security. There is at least no correspondence
between average happiness and 'inflation rates' , while a correspondence with 'social
security expenditures' only exists in the poor countries (probably a spurious effect of
There is modest support for the claim that income inequality in a country is
detrimental to the happiness of its citizens. It is again not specified to what extent
this correlation is spurious.
- Political characteristics.
Three political characteristics were considered: the degree of 'freedom' in the country,
the level of 'democracy' and the incidence of political 'violence' and 'protest'.
As far as political freedom is concerned it is clear that people are currently
happiest in the nations where governments are least 'coercive' and where the 'freedom of
the press' is held most in respect. The correlations were in fact as strong as in the case
of 'economic prosperity'. This time they were quite sizable within the richest part of the
world as well, thus demonstrating an affluence-independent relationship. Various other -
as yet unspecified spurious factors may be involved, however. To some extent the
correlation might also stem from effects of (un)happiness of citizens on the level of
freedom. As far as freedom does actually add to happiness it can do so directly by sparing
people the frustrations of oppression as well as in various indirect ways, such as by
promoting their 'self respect' in the long run and by fostering the notion that they are
in 'control' of their lot. Apart from the positive effects negative ones may also exist.
Similar strong statistical relations appeared to exist between average happiness and the level
of democracy in the country; both with the degree to which the political reality fits
in with the ideal of a 'liberal democracy' and with the degree to which associational
interest groups can express their interests (' interest-democracy'). The correlations were
again quite sizable both in the world-sample and among western nations. It has not yet
been specified how much common variance remains after checking for effects of various
economic and cultural variables. Nor is it certain to what extent the correlations mean
that the contentment of citizens adds to the chances of democracy or to what degree
democracy contributes to their appreciation of life. Once more it is not established
either what positive (and negative) effects on happiness are actually involved and in
which conditions these are the most pronounced.
Finally, it appeared that happiness is relatively low in nations characterized by a high
incidence of political violence and political protest. This applies both to
political unrest during the past decades and to present civic disorder. The correlation
exists again in the poorest part of the world as well as in the most affluent part. Again
various - as yet unidentified spurious factors may be involved and again the correlations
may mean that unhappiness evokes protest rather than that prevalence of political unrest
renders people unhappy. Possible effects of political unrest on happiness are once more
likely to be complex and conditional.
- Peace and war.
There is little doubt that warfare is generally detrimental to the happiness of people in
afflicted countries. The scars of World War II are for instance visible in the happiness
levels in the countries concerned. Thirty years later they still differentiate between the
most and the least afflicted, and between winners and losers. Various effects are likely
to be involved: at the social system level harm to 'economic prosperity', 'political
freedom' and 261 'political stability' and at the individual level in many cases a
disorganization of 'intimate ties', a shattering of 'health' and an undermining of 'mental
- Some characteristics of the local environment.
Various investigators inspected whether inhabitants of rural areas are happier than
inhabitants of urban areas. Differences appeared to be small or non-existent in both the
poorest and the most prosperous nations, while in the medium prosperous nations town
dwellers appeared typically happier than their compatriots living in the country. As such
the data contradict the so-called 'urban malaise' theory.
Similar but less pronounced differences appeared when the happiness of inhabitants of
small towns was compared with the happiness of people in big cities. An exception to this
pattern is the slightly lower happiness of people living in the centers of large
metropolitan areas in the US.
One American investigation further found somewhat less happiness in an economically
depressed community than in a prosperous one and even more in a less prosperous but
economically improving city. Various mechanisms may be involved, one being 'selective
One's place in society
Living conditions are generally not identical for all members of society. Consequently
there are considerable differences in happiness between social categories. However, not
all the differences in social status are paralleled by differences in appreciation of
life. Neither are the differences equally pronounced in all nations. In contemporary
western countries the variables at hand are only modestly related to happiness. Together
they explain no more than 10 percent of its variance. Differences in happiness between
western nations seem greater than differences in happiness within.
All over the world women appeared equally happy as men. Yet western studies found young
women to be happier than young men and elderly men happier than elderly women. These
differences seem largely due to differences in 'marital status'.
People of different age also appeared equally happy on average, at least as far as overall
happiness is concerned. Yet there are reasons for believing that ageing tends to reduce
joy in living, the observed non-difference veiling both 'selective survival' and
'acquiescence'. The acquiescence of elderly people gives itself away in a combination of
relatively high 'contentment' and low 'hedonic level'.
- Minority status.
Blacks appeared to be less happy than Whites in both postrevolutionary Cuba and the
post-war US. Surprisingly the successful emancipation of Blacks in the latter country
aggravated the differences in happiness rather than reduced them. Immigrants and
homosexuals also appeared relatively unhappy in the US. In Nigeria happiness was found to
be lower in a religious minority group.
Rich people are generally happier than poor ones, but the differences are not equally
pronounced across different times and cultures. Currently they are largest in India,
Israel and the Philippines and smallest in North America and Western-Europe. In the latter
parts of the world the differences decreased during the last decades. These variations
have some correspondence with differences in national income',
income-inequality' and 'incomesecurity'. Contrary to predictions of the law of
diminishing returns, the statistical relationship between happiness and income appeared to
be linear: both in western and in non-western nations. Though it is evident that earning a
relatively good income can add to the appreciations of life, the observed differences can
at least partly be due to the tendency of happy people to be 'healthier', more 'active'
and more 'sociable', and hence to be more successful economically; at least where 'open'
societies are concerned.
Highly educated people were also shown to be happier than their poorly educated
compatriots. The differences are greater in the poor countries than in rich nations and
decreased considerably in the latter during the last decades. Though sometimes quite
sizeable, the statistical differences can be misleading, the possibility that they are
spurious not having been checked sufficiently as yet. Again the differences may also mean
that happiness adds to educational success. As far as education contributes to happiness
it does so largely by adding to the chance of earning a good income. There is little
evidence for the educationalists' claim that schools open the way to greater happiness by
improving character. It seems rather to foster discontent by opening windows to
gratifications that remain out of reach
- Occupational prestige
People in prestigious occupations are generally happier than people in disdained jobs. It
has not yet been established to what extent these differences reflect the beneficial
effect of public admiration. Probably they are largely due to differences in 'income' and
- Global social rank.
Many investigators found people at the top of the social ladder to be happier than their
compatriots at the bottom. The differences were mostly stronger in the poor countries than
in the rich ones. In some of the rich nations the differences have largely disappeared
during the last decades: probably as a result of fading class distinctions. Consequently
some recent studies in western nations found happiness unrelated to social mobility and to
status consistency. Unfortunately most of these studies are not clear as to what rank
differences are involved. Further, it is again largely unspecified to what extent the
observed differences are spurious.
Working is generally believed to add to happiness; some kinds of work even more than
others. These views are only partly supported by the data.
Recent studies in western nations found no great differen ces in happiness between
employed and unemployed people. Unemployment was still most closely related to unhappiness
among chief wage earners. Retired persons appeared only slightly less happy than working
people of the same age, and full-time housewives turned out to be as happy as employed
married women. Careful elaboration did not change that latter non-difference. Furthermore,
part-time employed women and students did not appear happier than unemployed ones. The few
differences that were found do not necessarily reflect the beneficial effects of working.
They can be due to spurious factors (e.g. health) or to activating effects of joy in
living. Moreover, working seems to contribute to happiness only among people who want to
work: at least in contemporary western society.
All over the world happiness was found to be highest among people in 'professional' and
'managerial' occupations. 'Clerical workers' were typically second best, followed by
.skilled workers . 'Unskilled workers' and 'farmers' are generally least happy;
particularly in the poor countries. In spite of their remarkable consistency these
findings are not very informative. It has not yet been established to what extent they
reflect differences in 'quality of work' as such, or effects of 'income', 'education' and
'occupational prestige'. It is dubious whether the same hierarchy would remain when
thesevariables are checked statistically.
Studies in western nations found people who are involved in voluntary tasks in clubs,
churches and political organizations to be more satisfied with life than their compatriots
who are not. It is again unclear whether this difference is due to beneficial effects of
working. It can also be caused by spurious factors, or result from a tendency on the part
of the happy to join voluntary organizations more easily.
- Intimate ties.
Primary relations do not matter less to happiness than socio-economic factors: especially
not in the most modern western nations.
People who have a steady lifepartner were found to be happier than people who live alone.
Formally married people as well as people living in concubinage appeared typically happier
than never-married people. The latter were in their turn happier than widowed people, and
divorced people most unhappy of all. These differences in happiness between married and
unmarried people appeared to be less pronounced in Ireland, Italy and Puerto Rico than in
Denmark, the Netherlands and the US. In the latter two countries the differences have
grown considerably in the post-war decades. Apart from the presence of a spouse as such,
the quality of the marital relation has been shown strongly related to happiness. These
statistical differences stand up to elaboration reasonably well. Undoubtedly they are the
results of two kinds of causal effects firstly, joy in living adding to the chance of
getting/staying married, and secondly, marriage contributing to the quality of life in
various ways and thus to the appreciation of it.
Strangely enough, the presence of children seems not to add to the happiness of married
people, but rather to be slightly detrimental to it. This pattern was observed in western
as well as in non-western nations and remained after various potentially spurious factors
have been checked. It is not yet established whether happy people are more apt to have
children thanthe unhappy. As for the effects of children on happiness, it seems that they
add little to the rewards already provided by the spouse, but burden the marital relation
Friends and relatives
People who have regular contacts with friends or relatives appeared generally happier than
people who have not. Having a 'confidant(e)' in particular was closely related to
happiness. The correlations were generally stronger among the unmarried than among the
married, and relatively pronounced among elderly and ailing persons. Though bonds with
friends and relatives seem to relate to happiness in much the same way as the bond with a
spouse, they seem to provide somewhat different rewards.