Bryan Caplan  

The Neighborhood of Happiness

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A Game of Margins... There's no such thing as publi...
I've long maintained that raising your income only has a small positive effect on your happiness.  Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter's "Happiness of Everyday Life" (Journal of Happiness Studies, 2003) finds that your neighborhood's income's effect on your happiness is highly irregular.  From their experience-sampling study of American 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th-graders:
General traits of the person have rather strong relationships to happiness. The largest difference reflects the Social Class of Community (SCC) in which the teenagers live. SCC was computed on five levels of increasing affluence: Poor (mostly single-parent, unemployed), Working Class, Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class and Upper Class. Contrary to expectations, the highest level of happiness was reported by young people living in Working Class communities, then by those in Middle Class, Poor, Upper Class and finally Upper Middle Class environments. An ANOVA in which all the demographic variables (i.e. age, gender, SCC, Ethnic background) were entered showed the strongest effect for SCC (F = 8.09, p < 0.0001).
Their take on their findings:
What is surprising is the lack of positive correlation between happiness and financial affluence. That teenagers from working-class, and even impoverished backgrounds should be happier than upper-middle-class teenagers living in exclusive suburban communities is difficult to explain. It is possible that some selection bias is responsible for this result: perhaps relatively more students from lower class backgrounds who were happy volunteered and completed the ESM compared with more affluent students. But the rates of volunteering had been high in all schools, including the ones in the inner city neighborhoods, so this explanation could not account entirely for the findings. Perhaps in the affluent suburban sub-culture it is not "cool" to admit to being happy. Or perhaps material well-being is in fact an obstacle to happiness. Recent research on materialism suggests that excessive concern with consumer goods and material possessions is inversely related with positive developmental outcomes (Schmuck and Sheldon, 2001).
Not what I expected, but I'm hardly shocked.  Are you?


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
mico writes:

What are more surprising are the second order correlations. Does happiness correlate negatively with IQ?

Shane L writes:

The first thing that comes to mind is that kids in poor communities are competing for status with other poor kids, while those in wealthy communities are competing with their wealthy neighbours. It might be more difficult to keep up with the Joneses when they are quite well off. Kids in the richer environment might feel peer pressure to wear more expensive clothing, etc. They may even have more stressful expectations from parents regarding their academic achievements and future careers.

That is similar to the argument of Robert Frank in The Darwin Economy, where he argues that people in more unequal (in terms of income or wealth) societies experience a more stressful competition for status.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Perhaps working class kids have more freedom (and perhaps excitement) than middle and upper class kids (my impression, both from my portuguese experience and from US movies, is that upper and middle class kids spend more time in structured and regimented activities, while poor and working class kids are more "street culture")?

Andy writes:

Upper middle class kids are under a hell of a lot of pressure.

David Joslin writes:

Upper class kids are born into a world of parental expectations about maintaining their class status, which they then have to struggle to achieve. Lower class kids have not got that burden, and are therefore relatively happier.

An easy test of this hypothesis would be to check the relative happiness of lower class kids whose parents have high expectations for them, ie children of Tiger Moms.

Scott Sumner writes:

I agree with Andy, Upper class kids are under far more pressure to excel at school and in extra-curricular activities. Working class kids still have a lifestyle closer to what middle class kids like I had in the 1960s and 1970s.

(In fairness, I didn't predict this finding, but it's not surprising when you think about it.)

Sieben writes:

Richer kids feel more insecurity because they grow up thinking they're high status. But you're just a kid in a Ralph Lauren polo, so you have a lot to prove.

Of course, you and all your peers apply to ivy league schools and experience huge anxiety over the whole process. And then most of you experience crushing disappointment and self doubt when you don't get in.

It's all tied up with the cultural worship of education. It's not at all obvious to the average person how you should measure status, so we like these narratives that highly educated people and health care workers have good jobs, while electrical engineering is this fringe kind of weirdo "haha if that's what you like" occupation.

Of course it's all very pro-establishment. Sucking up to the dudes in charge. I guess that's historically been a safe place to be.

NZ writes:

Is the study meant to specifically investigate childhood happiness? If not, why use kids? Seems like it would introduce a lot of noise in the signal, and the results could be explained away by a lot of outside or at least tangential factors.

austrartsua writes:

The explanation is quite simple: teenagers are idiots.

Glen Smith writes:

Control is a major factor in happiness. If income is what makes you happy, most teens have little or no positive control over what the family earns. Other things needed to be happy are more in the teens control.

Dan Meyer writes:

If they're being supported by their parents, aren't all teenagers "rich", in a sense? They have a lot of consumption and leisure relative to the amount of work they have to do.

Yes, there's school work, but it's hard to get fired (and if you do, you'll probably still eat).

Miguel Madeira writes:

More: perhaps some working class teens have more money of their own (having occasional jobs, sometimes illegally) than many middle class kids.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Just a guess, but it is true that poor kids have much more opportunity of improving their lives than rich kids, who are more likely to be less successful than their parents. This is especially so because of reversion to the mean, so the poor kids are more likely smarter than their parents, and the rich kids dumber.

As NZ implies, just looking at kids skews the results. I suspect the results might have been opposite with adults.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

The hedonistic threadmill does not care where you are on it; it wants you to run at maximum speed regardless.

Miguel Madeira writes:

«If they're being supported by their parents, aren't all teenagers "rich", in a sense?»

They are all "poor" is sense, because all live from charity - even the teenager who has good cars and motorcycles, usually has these things because other person give to him these things; more, even the teenager who have their own money (from summer jobs, or from an heritage) can't spend that money as they wish, against the opinions of parents or legal guardians.

NZ writes:

It's not that looking at kids skews the results, it's that looking at kids gives you completely zany and irrelevant results. I don't see the usefulness in it at all, and it could even be a kind of red flag that the authors might be trying to hide something else.

Hasdrubal writes:

First off, quintiles may have been the most practical way to measure this, but are they the most useful factor to look investigate? Working Class, Middle Class and Upper Middle class are all clearly defined, but Poor could potentially range from homeless to not qualifying for government assistance, and Upper Class could range from, what, $500,000/year income to $tens of millions/year? I think it would be far more illuminating to run look at happiness over a continuous income range, or at least look at the difference between people at the margins: What does happiness look like in the neighborhoods right around the cutoff point between two classes?

Second, this is studying the neighborhood kids live in, not their family's income. (Which probably means quintiles were necessary, not just practical.) My gut says that this means class is not a proxy for income: The sign of the change isn't even consistent between adjacent income groups: Happiness falls as one goes from Working Class to Middle Class but rises when one goes from Upper Middle Class to Upper Class.

Poor -> Working = ++
Working -> Middle = -
Middle -> Upper Middle = --
Upper Middle -> Upper = +

(Or maybe income IS correlated to happiness, but negatively except at the extremes where it's positive?)

That makes me think "class" is proxying for something else. I'd probably go back to the drawing board and start looking at all the features of a poo neighborhood, comparing them to the features of a working class and a middle class neighborhood, and seeing which are similar and which are different. Even if I were controlling for them on an individual level already, might there be some interactions or consistencies that wouldn't show up for individuals but might for neighborhoods?

Floccina writes:

Tiger and overprotective moms.

Floccina writes:

BTW maybe upper middle-class parents need to read your books.

GU writes:

Teenagers of all classes want to break free from their parents and go wild. Anecdotally, a much higher percentage of poor kids have parents who allow that sort of behavior DURING HIGH SCHOOL. Check during college—i think you'll see the upper and upper-middle class kids are quite happy relative to poor and working class kids, who often struggle and/or drop out of college, if they even make it there.

I know amongst myself and all my upper-middle class friends, college is regarded as the best time of our lives, one that simply can't be topped.

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