Dear undercover economist Reply

We recently rediscovered Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist advice columns and thought it might make for some interesting reading to the new generation of economics students in the School.

Dear undercover economist,

I have a simple request. I just want to be happy. Can you help?

Ms Jessica Granger, Kirby Stephen

Dear Ms Granger,

This is hardly something to be ashamed of, and you have come to the right place for advice. Economists have been studying this subject intensively. Happiness+Equation

Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman asked a large sample of working women to describe what they had done and what they had felt through the previous day. If their experience is a guide, easily your best option is to have a lot of sex. Exercise, food, prayer and socialising also made people feel happy. Commuting makes people miserable. Any kind of human company is cheering, unless the other person is your boss. If you are having sex with your boss, Professor Kahneman’s survey cannot offer advice.

But perhaps you need a more long term view of life’s choices. London School of Economics Professor Richard Layard recently surveyed the subject.

At first sight the insights are commonplace: money does buy some happiness while divorce and unemployment make you sad. To give an idea of the size of the effect, losing your job and a third of your income is four times more depressing than just losing the income. Getting divorced is nearly as bad; being separated but not divorced is even worse.

The advice is clear: first, don’t make career choices that jeopardize your marriage; second, a secure job with moderate pay will make you happier than a shaky job with high pay.

Finally form low expectations. People with a high-earning peer group, women whose sister marry rich men, and people with a lot of education but little income are all miserable. This may explain the sour demeanor of many journalists.

Yours joyfully, The Undercover Economist

If you are keen to learn more about happiness economics, or how economists study subjective wellbeing, you can start with this short Time article. Or listen to this podcast about Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevensons’ research. Nick Powdthavee has a web site for his book, The Happiness Equation.

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