The History of Happiness: Are People Getting Happier?

Over the last few centuries, the lives of people have improved in almost every quantifiable way. Education, lifespan, living standards, hygiene, and countless other factors have steadily improved for essentially the entire population of the world. 

But some aspects of living a good life are not so easily measurable. Perhaps the most important of these is happiness. Are people today happier than they were at other points in history?  Think, for example, of people during the Middle Ages in Europe, where infant mortality rates hovered around 50%, starvation was an omnipresent threat, and the most common substitute for a toilet was a window. Has a thousand years of technological and economic development improved the average person’s happiness?

What is happiness? 

Happiness is a rather vague word that can mean any number of things, from a sudden feeling of elation to a long term feeling of contentment and satisfaction. For the purposes of this essay, I’m interested in long term happiness. 

Some people might claim that ‘happiness’ even when used specifically in the context of long term contentment, is too subjective a term to have any real meaning. If different historical cultures have different concepts of happiness, how could we compare happiness across time? I, however, am not very sympathetic to that argument. Happiness is not just a cultural phenomenon, it is a biological one. It is caused by certain hormones, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, released by the human brain. Therefore, the happiness felt by a hunter-gatherer 100,000 years ago would be fundamentally the same emotion as the happiness felt by myself as I create the image at the top of this blog post. Happiness is a concrete thing which can, to some degree, be measured.

Two Theories of Happiness

When it comes to long-term happiness of entire populations, two general schools of thought prevail. The first one I shall call the “Unbounded Happiness Theory.” The basic idea is that there is no fixed level of happiness at which humans naturally live. Therefore, the general happiness of the population might change dramatically over the long term if people’s environment changes. Unbounded Happiness Theory implies that people in the Middle Ages could have been drastically sadder than we are today (or much happier).

The second theory is called the “Hedonic Treadmill,” and it states that humans have a certain ‘default level’ of happiness. If something good or bad happens, people might become happier or sadder in the short term, but in the long term, people’s happiness will always remain at a fairly steady equilibrium, regardless of their living conditions or surroundings. The theory makes some intuitive sense. “Happiness,” goes an old expression, “is expectation divided by reality.” If a person has lived a life of want and privation, they will become desensitized. If a person lives an affluent lifestyle, the wrong kind of margarita might send them into a depressive spiral.

The two theories have completely different implications about historical happiness. If we accept Unbounded Happiness Theory, then happiness levels might vary dramatically through different historical eras. If we believe in the Hedonic Treadmill, however, then long term happiness has remained about the same for everyone throughout human history. 

Looking at the data 

So which theory is correct? Unfortunately, we don’t have any accurate data about the general happiness of populations from more than about 40 years ago, but we do have more recent data. Let’s examine what factors correlate to happiness in modern countries, and see what that tells us about the nature of general happiness.

Looking at the above graph, its clear that people in poorer countries report substantially lower levels of happiness than people in wealthier countries. At first, glance, this appears to support Unbounded Happiness Theory. Most poor countries have been poor for a long time, just as most wealthy countries have been rich for many years. Therefore, under Hedonic Treadmill theory, you might expect poor countries to be about as happy as wealthy countries.

The original chart can be found here, courtesy of The Economist.

However, other data complicates the picture. The above graph shows that over the past decade, growth in GDP per capita did not correlate much with changes in happiness. To put it another way, if a country gains wealth, it is almost as likely to become less happy as it is to become more happy. As you can see, the happiness of a country is also fairly unstable, rapidly shifting over time. Clearly, wealth and living standards are not the only large-scale factors to influence happiness. A plethora of other factors, like violence, income equality, spiritual peace, and others also have an influence on happiness. Perhaps certain factors abide by Unbounded Happiness Theory, and offer a long-term change in happiness level, while others are constrained by the Hedonic Treadmill, and their happiness effects soon fade away.

The other major weaknesses with this data is the limited timeframe. Hardly any happiness surveys exist from before the 1980s. To us, 40 years is a long time, but in the broader context of history, it’s a blip. If we had reliable survey data from, say, the last 400 years, we could see a gradual trend line behind all of the fluctuations, but sadly, that data is not available to us. 

In the absence of good survey data, researchers have embarked on more quixotic methods of data collection. One such study examined millions of books and articles written between 1820 and 2009, looking for the frequency of words relating to happiness or sadness. The study found that growth in GDP and life expectancy tends to lead to high happiness. In general, it found that happiness levels tend to remain fairly similar, a surprising conclusion since over the course of the study’s time frame, the lifestyle of most people fundamentally changed. Given the eccentric source of the data, however, I would be careful not to place too much trust in the conclusions.

Data for the USA, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France. Red lines designate periods of economic collapse or warfare.

Summary

We will never truly know whether people in the distant past lived happier or sadder lives than we do today. We can, however, come away with a few clear ideas:

  1. Many historical factors have an effect on happiness, and the importance of a given factor varies over time. Therefore, mapping happiness to single variables, even broad ones like like economic prosperity, does not create a strong correlation.
  2. Each of these variables, like health, wealth, religious fervor, and the rest, have a different long term relationship to happiness. Some are probably unbounded, and have a long-term impact on happiness, while others likely suffer from the Hedonic Treadmill, and their effects dissipate over time.
  3. Because of the complex series of factors going into happiness, overall happiness fluctuates dramatically over short periods of time.

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