February 13, 2006

Are We Happy Yet?

Graph: About One Third of Americans Are Very HappyAmericans have always had a thing about happiness. We all have certain unalienable rights, declares our Declaration of Independence, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So then, a couple of centuries into the chase, how are we doing?

Alas, only so-so. Just a third (34%) of adults in this country say they’re very happy, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey. Another half say they are pretty happy and 15% consider themselves not too happy. These numbers have remained very stable for a very long time.

But some of us are happier than others, and this variance helps to paint a portrait of the kind of people Americans are. It also casts doubt on some of the famous wisdom on the subject.

For example, remember grandma’s aphorism about money not buying happiness? Well, brace yourself, but dear ole grandma may have been misinformed. Our survey shows that nearly half (49%) of those with an annual family income of more than $100,000 say they’re very happy. By contrast, just 24% of those with an annual family income of less than $30,000 say they’re very happy.

Graph: Does Money Buy Happiness?This finding definitely puts grandma on shaky ground, but it doesn’t necessarily prove her wrong. It establishes a correlation (two things that go hand in hand) rather than a cause (one thing that leads to the other). There are, in fact, any number of possible causes of this correlation. Perhaps money leads to happiness. Perhaps happiness leads to money. Or perhaps both are influenced by some other, more powerful factor.

Later in this report we’ll try to sort out which correlations are most powerful. But meantime, we should note at the outset that all of the findings from this survey should be taken with a general caution.

Much of the research into the field of happiness — to say nothing of simple common sense – suggests that at the level of the individual, happiness is heavily influenced by life events (Did you get the big promotion? Have a fight with your boyfriend?) as well as by psychological traits (self-esteem, optimism, a sense of belonging, the capacity to love, etc.). The Pew survey did not look at life events or psychological characteristics. We only looked at happiness by demographic and behavioral traits. But through this admittedly limited prism, we found some fascinating correlations.

Several of them stand out: Married people are happier than unmarrieds. People who worship frequently are happier than those who don’t. Republicans are happier than Democrats. Rich people are happier than poor people. Whites and Hispanics are happier than blacks. Sunbelt residents are happier than those who live in the rest of the country.

We also found some interesting non-correlations. People who have children are no happier than those who don’t, after controlling for marital status. Retirees are no happier than workers. Pet owners are no happier than those without pets.

The findings are drawn from a telephone survey of a nationally representative, randomly-selected sample of 3,014 adults, conducted from Oct. 5 through Nov. 6, 2005. You can go directly to the full battery of happiness tables by clicking on this index. Here is a run-down of the most compelling findings.

Income

The correlation between happiness and family income is very strong indeed – reported happiness rises in a nearly straight line through eight levels of annual family income. At the highest income category — $150,000 and above – fully 50% of respondents report being very happy; by contrast, just 23% of those who have a family income below $20,000 say they are very happy.

But there is also a way to look at the long term trend in happiness that sheds a different light on the question of whether it is tied to money. As noted above, about a third of the public has been reporting they are very happy ever since 1972, when the General Social Survey (sociological surveys funded largely by the National Science Foundation) started asking the same happiness question that Pew posed in its survey. But during these past three decades, the average annual per capita income in this country has more than doubled in inflation adjusted dollars. Thus, in the aggregate, Americans have more money now than they did a generation ago. But in the aggregate, we’re no happier.

So was grandma right after all – money doesn’t buy happiness? Well, no. The trend data also show that what matters on the happiness front is not how much money you have, but whether you have more (or less) at any given time than everyone else.

That raises one more question: how about the really rich? Does the linear relationship between happiness and income continue right up into the income stratosphere – with billionaires happier than millionaires, who in turn are happier than the folks just getting by on $500,000 a year?

This survey can’t provide an answer; random phone calls don’t generate a large enough sample of the super rich. So all we can do is fall back on the wisdom of the popular culture, which is fond of chronicling the travails of the rich and famous. Of course, we can’t be sure if these stories are based on a representative sample. But we do notice that reading them often makes us happy.

Political Party Affiliation

Graph: Republicans Happier than Democrats, IndependentsSome 45% of all Republicans report being very happy, compared with just 30% of Democrats and 29% of independents. This finding has also been around a long time; Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey began taking its measurements in 1972. Pew surveys since 1991 also show a partisan gap on happiness; the current 16 percentage point gap is among the largest in Pew surveys, rivaled only by a 17 point gap in February 2003.

Could it be that Republicans are so much happier now because their party controls all the levers of federal power? Not likely. Since 1972, the GOP happiness edge over Democrats has ebbed and flowed in a pattern that appears unrelated to which party is in political power.

For example, Republicans had up to a 10 and 11 percentage point happiness edge over Democrats in various years of both the Carter and Clinton presidencies, and as small as a three and five percentage point edge in various years of the Reagan and first Bush presidencies. Also, we should explain here a bit about how our survey questionnaire was constructed. The question about happiness was posed at the very beginning of the interview, while the question about political affiliation was posed at the back end, along with questions about demographic traits. So respondents were not cued to consider their happiness through the frame of partisan politics. This question is about happiness; it is not a question about happiness with partisan outcomes.

Of course, there’s a more obvious explanation for the Republicans’ happiness edge. Republicans tend to have more money than Democrats, and — as we’ve already discovered — people who have more money tend to be happier.

But even this explanation only goes so far. If one controls for household income, Republicans still hold a significant edge: that is, poor Republicans are happier than poor Democrats; middle-income Republicans are happier than middle-income Democrats, and rich Republicans are happier than rich Democrats.

Might ideology be the key? It’s true that conservatives, who are more likely to be Republican, are happier than liberals, who are more likely to be Democrats. But even controlling for this ideological factor, a significant partisan gap remains. Conservative Republicans are happier than conservative Democrats, and moderate/liberal Republicans are happier than liberal Democrats. Hmmm, what other factors might be at play? Well, there’s always…

Religiosity

Graph: Frequent Church-Goers Are HappierPeople who attend religious services weekly or more are happier (43% very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31%); or seldom or never (26%). This correlation between happiness and frequency of church attendance has been a consistent finding in the General Social Surveys taken over the years.

The same pattern applies within all major religious denominations. For example, 38% of all Catholics who attend church weekly or more report being very happy, while just 28% of Catholics who attend church less often say they are very happy. The survey also finds that white evangelical Protestants (43%) are more likely than white mainline Protestants (33%) to report being very happy, but this difference goes away after taking frequency of church attendance into account.

Marital and Parenting Status

Graph: Is Marriage Bliss?Married people (43% very happy) are a good bit happier than unmarrieds (24%) and this too has been a consistent finding over many years and many surveys. It holds up for men as well as for women, and for the old as well as the young, though the marriage gap in happiness is not quite as great among the old.

Overall, parents are happier than adults who have no children, but this gap disappears once a person’s marital status is considered. That is, married people with children are about as happy as married people without children. And unmarried people with children are about as happy as unmarried people without children.

Race and Ethnicity

Blacks (28%) are somewhat less likely than whites (36%) or Hispanics (34%) to report being very happy. The difference in average family income among the groups appears to be a factor, but it plays out in different ways for different groups. For non-Hispanic whites, having more family income is clearly correlated with being happier. (There are not enough Hispanics in the survey for analysis by income groups.) But among blacks, there is no correlation – blacks with a family income of $50,000 a year or more are about equally likely to say they are very happy (28%) than are blacks with a family income of less than $50,000 (27%). It’s possible that blacks with incomes much higher than $50,000 (say $100,000 or more) are happier than others, but there were not enough of these higher income blacks in our survey for further analysis on this point.

Age and Gender

There is virtually no difference in happiness by gender and only a bit of variance in happiness by age. But the age data run counter to the prevailing ethos of the popular culture, which is forever extolling the blessings of youth.

It turns out that the young are less happy than the middle-aged or old. This gap is a bit more pronounced for men, who have a 15 percentage point happiness gap between those who are 18-to-29 years old and those who are over age 65, than it is for women, among whom the equivalent gap is just seven percentage points.

Work, Education, Health, Geography, Miscellanceous

Here most of the findings are pretty predictable – healthier people tend to be happier, and so do better-educated people.

The pattern in happiness by work status is a bit more complicated. Retirees (36%) and workers (35%) are equally likely to report being very happy, and both are happier than those who are not employed (26% very happy). There is a significant gender variance here. Retired men and retired women are about equally likely to be very happy, as are working men and working women. But among those who are not employed, men (16%) are less likely than women (30%) to report being very happy – presumably because for more women than men, not working outside the home is a matter of choice.

Recent immigrants are about as happy as those who have been here for generations. People who often feel rushed are less happy than those who don’t. Suburbanites are a bit happier than city folks, and Sunbelt residents are a bit happier than people who live in colder climates.

Putting It All Together

How do all these factors play out together? Well, it can get complicated. Sometimes the correlations tend to reinforce one another. For example, healthy people tend to have more income, and both these traits independently correlate with happiness. But sometimes the correlations are not in sync. Frequent church-goers, for example, on average have less income than infrequent church-goers – so their religious profile pushes them up the happiness scale while their financial profile pushes them down. Which factor is more powerful? And is being a Republican really a predictor of happiness, independent of all other factors?

One way to find out is by way of a statistical technique known as multiple regression analysis, which gauges the relationship between each factor and happiness while controlling for all the other factors. That analysis shows that the most robust correlations of all those described in this report are health, income, church attendance, being married and, yes, being a Republican. Indeed, being a Republican is associated not only with happiness, it is also associated with every other trait in this cluster. Even so, the factor that makes the most difference in predicting happiness is neither being a Republican nor being wealthy – it’s being in good health.

The same regression analysis also finds that education, gender, and race do not have a statistically significant independent effect on predicting happiness, once all the other factors are controlled.

Keep in mind, however, that even taking into account all these factors, we don’t actually improve by very much our ability to predict which specific individual is likely to be very happy. If we knew who’d been fired last week, or who’s a glass-is-always-half-full kind of person, we’d probably do a lot better.

Unhappiness

So much for happiness. What about the other side of the coin? Which Americans are “not too happy”? Well, as one would expect, the unhappy campers are for the most part the demographic mirror image of the happy campers. But there are a few wrinkles.

The first has to do with race. As already noted, whites and Hispanics are about equally likely to say they are very happy, and both groups are happier than blacks. But looking only at unhappiness, the relationship between the three groups changes: many fewer whites (12%) than blacks or Hispanics (each 23%) say they are not too happy.

On the health front, while there’s a strong association between feeling healthy and happy, there’s an even stronger association between feeling unhealthy and unhappy. Fully 55% of people who say their health is poor also report that they are “not too happy.” No other characteristic measured in this report comes close to rivaling poor health as a predictor of unhappiness.

The unhappiness data also highlight the plight of another demographic group — single parents with minor age children. More than a quarter of them (27%) report being not too happy – by far the largest percentage for any marital or parenting sub-group in the survey.

A Closing Note on a Delicate Subject

Lastly, we come to what may be the most controversial non-finding of all. It turns out that there is no significant happiness gap between dog owners and cat owners. Or between owners of pets of any kind and those who have no pets. We’re at a loss to explain. We’re just happy – no, make that very happy — that neither Fido nor Felix can read.

About the Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of adults, ages 18 years and older, living in continental U.S. telephone households.

Survey interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

In addition to sampling error, bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias in the findings of opinion polls.

Read the full report for more details.