Several researchers have noted that there is a tendency for average life satisfaction to be lower in the countries with high economic growth rates even though there is strong evidence that average life satisfaction is higher in countries with higher incomes. Carol Graham and Eduardo Lora have referred to this as the ‘paradox of unhappy growth’. In one recent paper Eduardo Lora (with Juan Camilo Chaparro) suggests that ‘unhappy growth’ may help to explain why some countries have been reluctant to adopt economic reforms that would lift economic growth rates (‘The conflictive relationship between satisfaction and income’, Nov. 2008).
This is an interesting view, but I doubt its validity. It seems to me that ‘unhappy growth’ could be a misnomer. Before explaining why I should try to summarise the authors’ explanations for ‘unhappy growth’. One explanation is in terms of an aspirational treadmill. Economic growth raises aspirations, so people experiencing high income growth may come to expect higher incomes and hence feel less satisfied with their current incomes than people experiencing low growth. The other explanation is that economic growth is often associated with structural changes that result in income losses to some groups as well as gains to others. As a result of loss aversion the average life satisfaction may decline while average income rises.
Both of these explanations seem plausible, but they leave us with a paradox. How can high incomes - which must have resulted from economic growth in the past - be associated with high average life satisfaction if economic growth reduces average life satisfaction?
There is a simple explanation that dissolves this paradox. The observation of lower average life satisfaction in the countries with higher growth rates might just reflect the shorter time that the people in the countries with higher growth have had to accumulate the capital necessary to enjoy the fruits of their current income levels. Consider two countries which currently have similar per capita incomes, one of which has experienced rapid growth over the last couple of decades and one which has experienced low growth. It would be reasonable to expect that per capita net wealth would be lower in the high-growth country than in the low-growth country because people in the former country have had less opportunity to accumulate wealth from their current incomes. People with lower per capita net wealth could be expected to have poorer standards of housing and to feel less financially secure, so it is only to be expected that they would feel less satisfied with their lives. (This is similar to the explanation offered by Angus Deaton, namely that life satisfaction responds to the long-term average income, as in a permanent income model of life satisfaction. See: ‘Income, health and well-being around the world’).
There is some evidence that average life satisfaction is strongly influenced by net wealth. A study by Bruce Headey and Mark Wooden has shown, using Australian data, that wealth is at least as important to subjective well-being as is income (IZA Discussion Paper 1032, Feb. 2004).
There is also some evidence of a similar phenomenon with respect to education levels. Regression analysis suggests that there is a tendency for average education levels to be lower in countries with high growth rates, after controlling for income levels. This can be explained in terms of the time taken for accumulation of human capital. It would make no sense to attempt to explain it in terms of economic growth resulting in less education.
Finally, there is evidence in the following chart that people tend to perceive that their quality of life has improved in countries that have experienced relatively high growth rates. The perceived improvement in quality of life over the last five years can be calculated as the difference between the rating of life today and life 5 years ago using data from the Gallup World Poll. The chart plots perceived improvement in quality of life against per capita GDP growth rate for the period 2002-07 (based on rgdpl data from Penn World Tables) for 103 countries. The pink dots in the chart lie on a line fitted by regression.
The evidence of perceived improvements in quality of life in countries experiencing high economic growth rates is not consistent with the idea that economic growth makes people unhappy. I don’t accept that the failure of governments to adopt economic reforms can be explained by ‘unhappy growth’.