Every once in a while, “happiness” hits the news. A few months back, it was the research that laughing makes for a happier life (including the journalists’ recommendations to watch more Jay Leno). Now, the latest is that researchers at Harvard and at Penn State say that the largest predictors of happiness are:
* physical health,
* relative income,
* education, and
* marital status.

The researchers Tach and Firebaugh used data of 20,000 people aged 20 to 64 from the 1972-2002 U.S. General Social Survey, a national survey taken every one-two years (more articles: here and here). I think the most interesting part is the first point – physical health is the primary contributor to happiness. The press, in a fascinating way, focused on the second point: “relative” income over “absolute” income. Specifically, the research states that for people making $20,000 more than the average in their peer group, their happiness increased by 10%. (It’s not clear from the press yet whether it’s relative health, realtive education, and relative marital status that contribute. Is everything “catching up with the Joneses”?)

I like the analysis by James Joyner that this result about “relative” income is very similar to the research of Robert K. Merton on “relative deprivation.” Merton found in his study of the American soldier that the military police and the air corp had different attitudes toward promotion. In the ranks of the military police, there was little promotion and everyone was generally happy whereas in the air corp, there was significant promotion for many people, and yet people saw their co-workers getting promoted and felt “relative deprivation.”


  1. Nick
    Posted Tuesday January 31, 2006 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    That’s funny, because we’ve learned that social relationships are the number one predictor of happiness. (that is, funny “ha, ha,” not funny serious)… or the other way around?

  2. senia
    Posted Tuesday January 31, 2006 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    You know, that is funny! I never thought about that. As Diener and Seligman say, very happy people tend to across-the-board have high quality social relationships… so it is funny that comparing their successes to those folks with whom they have social relationships can cause people stress about how happy or not happy they are. Funky.