What Makes Us Happy?

Researchers that study happiness often ask whether money buys happiness. The research suggests that, yes money can buy happiness. But, only up to a point. For example, once a person’s basic needs are met, additional money does not always make people happier.

Two British scientist’s investigation hopes to shed new light on the subject of a country’s wealth related to its people’s happiness. According to the Economist, “By examining millions of books and newspaper articles published since 1820 in four countries (America, Britain, Germany, and Italy), the researchers developed what they hope is an objective measure of each place’s historical happiness. And their answer is that wealth does bring happiness, but some other things bring more of it.”

The researchers essentially confirmed what other found – that meeting basic needs are a key to rising happiness. By charting “aggregate happiness” against history, they found certain time periods were “happier in aggregate” than other periods. Not surprising is that periods of aggregate unhappiness came during times of economic and sometimes physical pain — including wartime, market crashes, revolutions and steep depressions.

The chart is shown on the following page. Between end of World War II, and the 1970’s, the U.S. experienced relative unhappiness. Korea, Vietnam, and energy crisis, civil unrest, and stagflation were all part of this less joyful period. But, starting around 1980, there has been a steady rise in U.S. happiness – until the Great Recession.

Looking abroad, people in Britain were generally happier during the Victorian era than they have ever been since, and, predictably, the European countries saw a decline in overall happiness during World Wars I and II—and a sharp recovery in happiness took place when the wars were over.