The Hedonic Treadmill

by F.

While there are no shortage of books on happiness out there, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Utility: Happiness in Philosophical and Economic Thought, by Anthony and Charles Kenny, stands out from the crowd. The authors, a philosopher and an economist (father and son, as you may have guessed), break up happiness into three pieces: welfare, contentment and dignity. Welfare includes items such as life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality or health. As Samuel Britten mentioned in the FT today,

The most striking of the Kenny findings is how little welfare has to do with income, either absolute or relative…. The authors believe that the main contributors to increased welfare are technological advance and “public action”. Their own data, however, suggest that only a very limited part of public expenditure, such as public health and sanitation measures, are relevant here rather than the bulk of items that went into either a 19th century or a modern government budget.

The authors point out that even if we take the findings on relative incomes at their face value, they are associated in the US with a maximum of 5 per cent of the reported differences in well-being between individuals. So much of the cross-country variation in subjective well-being remains unexplained by objective influences that they suggest “a distinct limit to policy or other interventions” in increasing subjective well-being scores.

The Pew Research Center has just come out with some related data:

As Americans navigate increasingly crowded lives, the number of things they say they can’t live without has multiplied in the past decade, according to a new Pew Research Center survey that asks whether a broad array of everyday consumer products are luxuries or necessities.

Even as Americans get more affluent, their needs become subjectively greater:

The more they make, they more they need:

And sometimes, even if they don’t need it they have it anyway: