If you want to know what makes people happy, a fairly direct route is to ask them.
This is essentially what a team of London School of Economics researchers did for a presentation and forthcoming book they distilled in a post for the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Lead by Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics, the research team combined well-being surveys from Britain, Germany, Australia, and the U.S., for a total of over 200,000 respondents.
The scores were marked on a 1 to 10 scale. As the BBC notes, a doubling of pay saw happiness rise by less than .2 points, while well-being went up 0.6 with having a partner. Mostly, the researchers say, the “big factors” for well-being “are all non-economic,” namely partnership and physical-mental health.
They did find that earning more in an absolute sense didn’t contribute to well-being, but making more than your peers did. This looks like an instance of what social psychologists call the “local ladder effect”: Well-being is tied to one’s financial status relative to colleagues, friends, and neighbors. The researchers also found that abolishing depression and anxiety “would reduce misery by as much as if we could abolish all of poverty, unemployment, and the worst physical illness,” and that a child’s emotional health was the best predictor of their life-satisfaction as an adult.
As you may have sensed, these are big, sweeping conclusions. How much are they to be trusted? National surveys such as these have, to a degree, been criticized for sloppy methodology and even fraud. In the U.S., at least, just 9 percent of people contacted for surveys bother to respond, so it’s hard to say how representative these surveys really are. Also, the illusory superiority bias states that everybody thinks they’re better at everything than the actually are, whether it’s physical attraction, prowess at driving a car, or having lots of friends. Meanwhile, the social-desirability bias finds that respondents to surveys will give answers that they think make them look good, rather than what’s in their heart of hearts. Finally, haven’t the past 2,500 years of philosophy and 140 years of experimental psychology attested to that fact that the nature of human flourishing doesn’t reduce to a 10-point scale? Maybe I’m just being neurotic.