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  • Writer's pictureJohn Shrawder

Introduction to Happiness, Misery, and the Good Life

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

In the last blog, I defined four goals of high schools that could prepare students for life after age 18.. One was to understand happiness and misery and to learn the knowledge and skills to attain these.

We can evaluate anyone’s contribution to happiness in three ways.

  • How happy is any particular person?

  • How much are they adding to the happiness of others?

  • How much are they adding to the misery of others?

Much of this falls into the domain of ethics and values. There are many beliefs on ethics and the good life. Many are grounded in particular religious and cultural traditions. The various forms and ethical systems can be discussed in later blogs.

Various systems of values frequently are different and often lead to human conflict. However, there has been a search for values that are uniform across all human cultures. In this post we will assume that happiness can be measured through surveys. People are asked to what extent they are happy. The degree of happiness is statistically analyzed against characteristics of people’s lives.

Much of the happiness research presented in this blog is based on the United Nations World Happiness Report which has been published annually since 2012 and the 2018 book “The Origins of Happiness” by Andrew E Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattuvudh Powdthavee, and George Ward. Selective amounts of data from these studies are presented.


Philosophers have thought about human happiness through recorded history.

In recent years, the social sciences including economics and psychology have conducted much research into what makes people happy or miserable. Traditionally the economics profession has assumed that income and wealth is all that is needed to create happiness. The more income we have the more happiness. Creating income should be the goal of all nations and all institutions.

In the 1970s, economist George Easterin noted that income in many countries increased from the 1940s to the 1970s but surveys of overall happiness did not. Easterlin believed that relationship between income and happiness is more complicated than previously though. His work has led to the development of happiness economics.

Since 2012 the United Nations has conducted surveys to measure relative happiness across countries. Analysts base their rankings on an analysis of responses to the Gallup World Poll which surveys over 10,000 people across each of 160 countries.

In 2019 Americans ranked 19th in happiness among the 160 countries. The typical American is less happy than citizens of countries like Australia, Canada, The United Kingdom, and Germany among other nations. There is a GAP in happiness between the people of America and other countries. Certain characteristics of American society could be changed to make Americans happier. This will be explored in this material.

UN analysts have found statistical links between happiness and the following six items across the 160 countries.

  • Health

  • Income

  • Perceived Corruption in a country

  • Freedom to make one’s life choices

  • Interpersonal Support

  • Charity

We should expect improvements in these areas to lead to increase in the average happiness of a nation. For America to improve its level of happiness it should improve these items.

Andrew E Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattuvudh Powdthavee, and George Ward have expanded on this in their 2018 book “The Origins of Happiness”. In addition to the Gallup World Poll they have developed conclusions based on the following additional surveys of happiness and misery

  • German Socioeconomic Panel – A survey of 12,000 people in Germany that has been collected since 1984

  • Australian Survey of Household Income and Labor Dynamics which surveys over 7.000 Australians annually since 2001

  • USA Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System started in 1984 now surveys health information on over 400,000 persons

  • British Household Panel Survey which has surveyed 10,300 people since 1991

  • British Cohort Study – Has regularly followed 17,287 British children who were born in 1970.

  • Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children – Has traced 15,347 British Children who were born in Avon England in 1991 or 1992.

These surveys include information from a wide number of people in a variety of circumstances and may be able to provide data on a wide number of people. They cannot define what makes any one person happy but they can provide clues on what can make us happy or unhappy in the future. We will discuss the findings from these throughout the class.


Clark and his co-authors have statistically analyzed the data in the above surveys and found that the following factors are the most dominant at explaining human happiness and misery among many people. Each has a different impact on happiness.

  • Health, Illness, and Disability

  • Income including Poverty, hunger, homelessness, and the ability to buy goods and services

  • The strength of institutions including

  • Corruption and dishonesty in institutions

  • Employment and Unemployment

  • Education

  • Building a Family and having someone to care for you

  • Social trust and cheating in a community

  • Charity and generosity

  • Crime

  • Religion

  • Personal freedom from coercion by others


Improving health and income are determinants of happiness that can be connected directly to the eight course areas in the high school curriculum. These will be discussed later. Some of the other determinants of happiness are tied to institutions and are more difficult to connect to the high school curriculum.

Institutional Measures on the World Happiness Report - International. The following table shows the ranking of the United States and other selected countries on the 2019 World Happiness Report.

The following are some opinions derived from this table.

  • Generosity measures the strength of a country’s charity system. Social Support is the question of whether someone is available to care for you in times of need. We will assume it is a measure of the strength of a country’s families. Corruption is a measure an average person’s confidence in all institutions.

  • The other English speaking countries, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, score better than the United States in all measures. There is a gap between the USA and these countries in overall happiness and all these institutional measures.

  • Among these measures the United States has the greatest gap in the perceived corruption American’s hold. Besides the English speaking countries, Americans see their institutions as more corrupt and less helpful than do people in the other industrialized countries like France, Germany and Japan.

Confidence in Specific Institutions – Surveys of Americans

Good institutions add to happiness by being helpful to people; bad institutions harm people. Both the Gallup and Pew Survey organizations have been conducting surveys of Americans on confidence in institutions. Gallup has been conducting samples since 1973. The following is a summary of selected information from the Gallup surveys.

Pew research conducted a similar study in 2017

The following are some opinions derived from these tables.

  • Americans have little confidence in most institutions. For many institutions, people are just as likely to have low trust as they are to have high trust. Many Americans feel institutions could be doing more harm to average people than good.

  • For most institutions the long term trend is for people to have less trust. Persons leaving high school over the past 50 years do not understand the value of these organizations or are participating in organizations and contributing to their corruption. Few institutions have high confidence from more than 50% of the public

  • The military, police, and small business are the only organizations that the public continues to be confident in over time.

The strength of institutions has been connected to happiness and misery of a society. In the next post I will connect Institutional health to the High school curriculum.

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