Citizen Action Monitor

Attempts to equate prosperity with happiness and life satisfaction fail to measure up

“To equate prosperity with happiness goes against our experience of what it means to live well.”

No 2048 Posted by fw, September 10, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

In the preceding synopsis of Section 2, Chapter 3 of Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, Jackson set out to equate the concept of prosperity at the societal level with a valid, reliable, measurable indicator. Considered as possible indices were: accumulation of material good;, the level of use and satisfaction which the material goods provide; and GDP. All were rejected for one reason or another.

In today’s synopsis of Section 3, titled “Happiness wars’, Jackson examines the controversy surrounding the proposition that happiness would be a reliable indicator of prosperity at the societal level.

As an aside, I have found Jackson’s academic writing style particularly confusing and frustrating in places. His sentences are not always clear and concise, and I worry that his lack of clarity may carry over into my synopses.

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.


Happiness wars, a synopsis, from Chapter 3, “Redefining Prosperity” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

“The suggestion that income is a poor proxy for utility draws further support from evidence of people’s life-satisfaction,” declares Tm Jackson in his opening sentence to this section, the “Happiness wars”.

Jackson is supporting an assertion made in a 2005 book, Happiness, by UK economist Richard Layard. Drawing on decades of research, Layard pointed out that even though incomes have doubled over the past fifty years, we are no happier now.

Using Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, Layard said we should monitor “life-satisfaction or happiness” as well as, or instead of, GDP, as a more “appropriate measure of social progress.”

Jackson reports that a “fierce controversy” surrounds the question: “Does higher income lead to increases in happiness or does it not?”

The “happiness wars” as they were called, started with the publication of a 1974 paper by US economist Richard Easterlin, titled Does economic growth improve the human lot?

Here is a summary of Easterlin’s findings:

First, within a country, higher income groups report higher levels of happiness than lower income groups.

Second, paradoxically, while the rich are happier than the poor, the country as a whole isn’t any happier. Jackson puts it this way:

“The population as a whole gets richer. Some people are better off than others and positions in society may change. But the process adds little or nothing to overall wellbeing. … ultimately, the environmental and social costs … can have a profoundly negative impact on all of us.”

Third, as for reported life-satisfaction across nations, although some high income countries reported higher life satisfaction than some low income countries, the differences were not absolutely clear-cut.

Easterlin’s controversial findings prompted a movement to collect better data across more countries, which, in fact, betrayed an attempt by pro-economic growth factions to bolster the claim that economic growth is a means to a better life.

The results of this effort were unexpected to say the least:

“…rich economies do, on the whole, report significantly higher levels of happiness and life-satisfaction than poor economies. But the absolute gains in life-satisfaction associated with an increase in income are much smaller for richer economies than they are for poorer ones.

Jackson reports that subsequent studies have also failed to equate happiness and life-satisfaction with prosperity.

To account for the failure, these were among the explanations put forward:

  • our sense of wellbeing depends intrinsically on what kind of society we live in, and in what happens within that society. Life-satisfaction is higher in more tolerant societies;
  • a worrying criticism is that people are known to be inconsistent in assessments of their own happiness depending on the framing of the question they’re asked;
  • people also feel happiness from being deeply engaged in something. And they only feel fulfilled when their lives have a sense of meaning; and
  • the measurement process itself appears to be flawed. Happiness-based measures of utility and expenditure-based measures of utility seem to behave in very different ways. And since they both claim to measure utility we can conclude that there is a problem somewhere. One or other – perhaps both – of these measures appears not to be doing its job properly.

Bottom line, says Jackson:

“… to equate prosperity with happiness goes against our experience of what it means to live well. People can be unhappy for all sorts of reasons, some of them genetic, even when things do go well. Equally, they may be undernourished, poorly housed, with no prospect of improvement and yet declare themselves … completely content with their lot.”

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