Happiness

By John Lumbard.

Our economy is accelerating.  Monthly employment gains have grown from 150,000 to 200,000, and the net worth of US households has hit a new high. Dirt-poor farmers and ranchers are getting rich;  we just heard of a hardscrabble North Dakota rancher whose oil royalties are now $1.2 million per week.

This is the acceleration that Paul Wright, our economist, has been talking about.  Mostly it’s a rebound from the depressing effects of $177 billion in tax increases (they’re much more impactful than spending cuts) in January.  Paul is now calling for 2.5% growth in 2014 and beyond, which is about as fast as the Federal Reserve governors will allow.  They’ll want to take every opportunity to withdraw the amphetamines (0% interest rates and a trillion dollars’ worth of freshly-printed money) that they’ve been feeding us every year.

Still, this is great time to be alive!  Instead of dwelling on the sluggishness of our economy, let’s rejoice in how prosperous we are—relative not just to the rest of the world, but to the poverty and malnourishment of our own nation just 100 years ago.

Most Americans can’t seem to remember how expensive and tasteless food was, even a short time ago.  Did you ever visit the wintertime vegetable “aisle” of a General Store in the 1970s?  And today you can buy a hamburger for just 8 1/2 minutes of minimum-wage work;  seventeen cents, in 1970 dollars.

Our oldest citizens remember, and that’s one reason why they consistently claim in surveys to be happier than the rest of us.  Happier than all the rest of us; Americans over the age of 75 are happier than college students.  This surprises the elderly just as much as it surprises you, but all over the world citizens report less happiness as they progress through life to middle age—the global average low point is 46—and then a startling reversal that climbs steeply for the rest of their lives.

The graph below (from The Economist) shows happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, ages 18 to 85.  Similar results have come up in study after study, worldwide.  If you’re in your 40s, fear not;  it’s going to get better!

 

The U.N. just published its World Happiness Report for 2013, listing 156 nations;  from ecstatic Denmark to miserable Togo.   The U.S. was #17, just behind Mexico and well behind Canada at #6.  All of the top nine were cold, snowy, wealthy countries . . .

Studies on happiness are suddenly pouring in from all over.  Happy people are grateful and generous, and they don’t wallow in envy.  They get outdoors often—away from TVs and computer screens—for exercise, fresh air, and the light therapy and vitamin D that comes from sunlight (not always an easy thing for #2 Norway).  They’re good at managing expectations and wanting, and feel that they have a lot of freedom to make choices.

Our region (North America, Australia, and N.Z.) topped the UN happiness rankings in freedom, “perceptions of corruption”, and charitable donations.

Biggest surprise?  The people of Costa Rica (#12), handicapped by a warm climate and modest wealth, but nevertheless maintaining an attitude of gratitude that they express as “pura vida”.  Tourism and medical tourism— important pillars of the economy—have encouraged environmental protection, education, and a health care system that works.  Their universal health care is cost effective, and if you think the public hospitals seem understaffed and chaotic you have the option of paying up for world-class private care.

Those private hospitals have to be world class, because they’re competing for European patients who don’t want to wait 6 months for a knee operation, and Americans who know that they’ll save many thousands of dollars.

Don’t worry, be happy!

 

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