Accessibility links

Breaking News

Economists Pursue Happiness by Asking Americans How They Feel

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: happiness as defined by an economist.

RS: For almost a year, economists at the University of Michigan have been asking Americans about their happiness for the school's widely quoted monthly measure of consumer confidence.

AA: Miles Kimball is an economics professor at Michigan. He says only results from the first three months have been analyzed so far. We asked him how all this works, language-wise.

MILES KIMBALL: "What we did was we added to the survey of consumers the following question: 'Now think about the past week and the feelings you've experienced. Please tell me if each of the following was true for you much of the time this past week: You were happy. You felt sad. You enjoyed life, You felt depressed.' And people are asked to give yes-no answers to each of those four questions. That takes only about forty-five seconds for people to answer that, so it's quite quick."

RS: "Why would you want to know the answers to these questions?"

AA: "And then we can ask you, what have you found so far?"

MILES KIMBALL: "Well, actually maybe I could explain how this relates to language because I think that answers those questions, too. So, in most languages, the word for happiness is related to the word for good luck. And in English, for example, we have the word 'happenstance' or this archaic phrase 'as happ has it,' which are both about luck and things that happen by chance.

"And so that meaning of happiness ends up meaning something like having a good life or the outcome of good fortune. And it's important to realize this is a different meaning of happiness than just how you feel. They're obviously related, and that's important -- related but different.

"One of the striking facts about happiness in the sense of how you feel is that it tends to go back to normal pretty fast. So we found this in our data after -- in people's reaction after Hurricane Katrina. So we measured the happiness of people across the country -- so almost none of these people are those who are directly affected by the hurricane, and yet their happiness dipped down for a week or two. And then it came back to normal.

"So it's not too surprising that people would react strongly to Katrina. But then that becomes a measuring rod for other things. One of the surprising things we found was that a month later there was almost as strong a dip in happiness after the earthquake in Pakistan. To me this makes sense. You know, you see on TV suffering people and it doesn't matter if they're suffering people on the other side of the world or in your own country -- I mean it does matter, but either way you care about them because they're human beings."

AA: "Well, let me ask you, there have been a lot of stories recently I've noticed about happiness, and studies of happiness, and economists and others seem very interested in this. What's going on, why the interest now in happiness?"

MILES KIMBALL: "Well, a lot of the interest is based on these two meanings. Some of the interest is based on something bigger than I think we can actually do. The big thing would be if somehow these two meanings of happiness happen to be equal to one another. So, in other words, if you could go out and ask people how happy they felt and have a measure of how well their life was going overall, that would be very handy and you could do all kinds of things with that.

"And so, for example, there is an economist in England, Richard Laird, who has written a book on happiness who proposes to do public policy on that basis. That's taking things a little bit too far. You can learn a lot from looking at happiness, but in order to learn about what matters to people, you'd actually have to find news events.

"The trouble you find is that these news effects go away after a while. People adjust to new situations. There's a name for that, 'hedonic adaptation,' that the happiness goes back to normal. And the other interesting thing is that the normal level of happiness depends on a lot of things that are not necessarily an overall measure of how well your life is going."

RS: Economist Miles Kimball at the University of Michigan hopes to get a three-year grant to continue measuring Americans' happiness. The current funding lasts through September.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is and you can download all of our segments at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.