CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Happiness Around the World Lecture Synopsis

October 29th, 2010

On October 22, 2010 students, faculty, and staff members filled the Stone Center for Latin American Studies Greenleaf Conference room to engage in lively discussion with Carol Graham, Senior Fellow and Charles Robinson Chair at the Brookings Institution, Public Policy Professor at the University of Maryland and Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany.

Graham’s presentation, “Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires” addressed the topic of why poor people seem to be happier than millionaires and explained how answering this provocative question “throws a monkey wrench” into contemporary studies of development.

Utilizing happiness surveys alongside standard econometric tools, Graham outlined surprising correlations between individual perceptions of happiness and income and health levels around the world. Individuals living in destitute conditions turn out to be quite happy while miserable millionaires remain “frustrated overachievers.” Income and health are confirmed as relative concepts. Kenyans are just as happy with their health care as are Americans, explained Graham.

Why might rapidly developing countries like China, South Korea, and Brazil show low levels of happiness? Graham reasoned that economic progress is generally accompanied by big changes that force individuals to adapt to uncertain contexts. Adaptation to uncertainty can be both positive and negative. Graham demonstrated the remarkable resiliency of individuals to adapt in times of crisis. When the stock market plummeted in late 2008, for example, surveys revealed a sharp decline (11%) in happiness within the United States. And yet, some months later, happiness levels among Americans began to rebound significantly.

Individuals adapt well to negative changes, too. Some societies get stuck in “bad equilibrium,” Graham explained. Individual attitudes are mediated by norms. Crime matters less to individual perceptions of happiness for those accustomed to petty theft or corruption just as democracy and freedom matter more to the happiness of individuals habituated to stable democratic governments. While happiness surveys can reveal much about individual agency and capabilities, Graham notes, we should use caution when applying these surveys to development policy.

Graham’s upcoming book will address the issue of happiness and policy.

Listen to the Podcast of Graham’s lecture where you can hear more about the findings of her research here.

Lecture summary written by Keri Libby, Roger Thayer Stone Center Student – M.A. Candidate.
Photo courtesy of Tricia Travis