Quantifying Happiness

28 February 2017

Carleton economics professor Faress Bhuiyan has joined the ranks of the many psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists who have sought to answer the question What makes us happy?

“Economists might be late to the party, but we bring some nice empirical tools,” he says. “It’s difficult to study happiness without an interdisciplinary approach, because happiness has numerous dimensions that cannot be covered by one discipline.”

Bhuiyan is particularly interested in the effects of relative consumption on happiness, which he explains as “the idea that I’ll be satisfied with one apple if others have none, but I’d probably feel deprived with one apple if everybody else has two.”

Overall, his research, conducted primarily in his native Bangladesh, has shown that spending money on consumer goods has little impact on happiness, while giving to others or spending on experiences like travel actually can make us happier.

Some of the biggest surprises in Bhuiyan’s findings include evidence that a sudden change in fortune—like winning the lottery—won’t make us happier. “You just adjust to it,” he says. And education level doesn’t affect happiness beyond its link to higher income.

“Midlife crises seem to be real, though,” he says. “People ages 35 to 55 report feeling unhappiest.”

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