Economy of joy, or the worth of a marriage

In terms of happiness, your spouse - if you have one - is worth $100,000 a year.

That's the finding of two economists who have tried to put a monetary value on happiness, measuring the emotional value of everything from religion to racial discrimination in dollars.

Such a calculation, admits economist David Blanchflower, is "a little bit off-the-wall" and may prompt wry comments within some marriages on "cashing in."

The two economists are, of course, speaking of averages. They have used an annual survey of some 1,500 Americans from 1972 to 1998 to measure self-reported happiness and the factors that go with it. But it turns out that the happiness value of a stable marriage is "incredibly high," says Dr. Blanchflower, a professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., whose study has just been published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. "Don't give it up lightly."

Blanchflower and his partner Andrew Oswald, an economist at Warwick University in Britain, begin with this question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are happy, pretty happy, or not so happy?"

The survey results include detailed characteristics of those surveyed - married, divorced, single, income level, race, gender, etc.

With that data, they found which factors are associated with greater happiness.

Extra money does buy some happiness. But not as much as many would suspect. Constructing a sort of happiness index that assigns 3 to "very happy," 2 to "pretty happy," and 1 to "not too happy," the two reckon that an extra dollar provides 0.00000409 in additional happiness. Or $10,000 would give you 0.04 units of extra happiness.

The two economists, using this index, assign a dollar value to other factors associated with more or less happiness.

Using that device, a lasting marriage is worth $100,000 per year compared with being widowed or divorced. Being "separated" is the greatest depressant of happiness, followed closely by the death of a spouse.

Second and subsequent marriages are less happy than first marriages - on average.

A 16-year-old whose parents divorced has a lower level of well-being in adulthood.

"Marriage is believed by psychologists and psychiatrists to provide a protective effect to mental well-being," the authors note.

Blanchflower suspects the decline in the happiness level of Americans from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, despite rising incomes, may be attributed to the rise in divorce.

Other findings include:

*To bring African-Americans up to average happiness levels, they would need an extra $30,000 in annual income.

This, the authors speculate, may be the impact of racial discrimination. Over the past few decades, however, their happiness level has risen. "Blacks have made up some ground," they say.

*Unemployment is highly damaging to men's happiness. It would take $60,000 a year to offset being jobless.

*Men's happiness has trended up. Women's sense of well-being, though higher than that of men, has fallen "noticeably."

Policies aimed at ending discrimination against women apparently have not boosted their happiness overall.

*The educated tend to be happier than those less educated, even when separated from the higher income that often accompanies greater education.

*Happiness and life satisfaction are U-shaped according to age. In the United States, people's sense of well-being sinks to a low around 40 and then rises.

Perhaps, the authors suggest, people adapt to their circumstances, relinquish some unfulfilled aspirations by the middle of their lives, and enjoy life more.

*Being religious has a positive effect.

*Overall, the number of children and siblings a person has doesn't have an impact on their happiness. But for those under 30, happiness decreases proportionately to the number of both children and siblings, Blanchflower and Mr. Oswald found in a separate study, "The Rising Well-Being of the Young."

Blanchard suspects this has to do with the stress associated with having lots of kids.

Surveys in Britain give "noticeably similar results" to those in the US. But people's level of satisfaction has remained about the same from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.

Skeptics ask whether self-reported measures of happiness have any scientific merit. But Blanchflower notes studies showing correlations of such happiness reports with unemployment, a person's recall of positive and negative events, assessments of happiness of friends and family, and various physical measures, including genuine smiles.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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