Paper presented at the international conference “The paradoxes of happiness in economics”, Milan, March 21-22 2003. Published in Italian as Felici nelle avversista
in: Bruni, L. & Becattini, G. (Eds.) 'Felicita ed economica. Quando il benessere e ben vivere' Edizioni Angelo Guerini e Associati, Milano, Italia, ISBN 88-8335-482-6
Happiness is often seen as the fruit of an easy life, but empirical studies show that happiness can go together with considerable hardship. Average happiness is high in current western nations, in spite of chronic problems such as criminality, time-pressure and social inequality. Likewise, the happiness of the average citizen is not affected by calamities such as the 11 September terrorist attack on New York. At the individual level there are also examples of happiness in hardship: the happiness of poor and handicapped people is only slightly below average.
These paradoxical findings can be explained in three ways: one explanation is that they do not adequately reflect reality, because of measurement bias or false consciousness. A second explanation holds that subjective happiness is insensitive to objective conditions. A third explanation is that we can live with some problems and even flourish when confronted with challenge.
These three explanations are considered in the light of the available evidence. It is concluded that the last one fits best. Happiness requires livable conditions, but not Paradise.