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Updated 9:00 AM June 21, 2006




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Hurricanes and the happiness index: U-M study tracks the time path

With another hurricane season underway, a University study shows how Hurricane Katrina affected the happiness of a nationally representative sample of 1,105 U.S. adults.

Not surprisingly, average happiness levels in the U.S. dipped significantly right after Katrina hit. But within two weeks—three for residents of the battered South Central region—average levels of happiness had rebounded to pre-storm levels.

The study is a pilot project designed to provide high-frequency data on happiness by U-M economists Miles Kimball and Helen Levy, together with Osaka University economists Fumio Ohtake and Yoshiro Tsutsui.
Rita as a category 4 hurricane photographed on September 22, 2005. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic And Atmospheric Agency)

"Just because happiness rebounded quickly after Katrina doesn't mean we should underestimate the importance of the event," said Kimball, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research. "That's just the nature of happiness; people adjust psychologically and cognitively to all kinds of events, from winning the lottery to the news that they have cancer. It's called hedonic adaptation."

Published as a working paper earlier this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study tracked the week-by-week responses from July 29-Oct. 24, 2005 to the following question, widely used to measure positive and negative feelings:

Now think about the past week and the feelings you have experienced. Please tell me if each of the following was true for you much of the time this past week:
a. You felt happy.
b. You felt sad.
c. You enjoyed life.
d. You felt depressed.

Kimball and colleagues constructed a happiness index that is the simple sum of these four questions, with "yes" answers to "a" and "c" and "no" answers to "b" and "d" valued as one. Overall, they found, the mean value of the happiness index was relatively high—3.4 out of a possible 4.0.

In a related study, Kimball and ISR economist Robert Willis argue that much of the variation in happiness is not about how well off you are, but about news in your life—whether you are doing better or worse than expected. "The average level of happiness is just one of many things people care about. But the temporary spikes in happiness after good news and dips in happiness after bad news give a comprehensive picture of what matters to people."

These short-run movements in happiness show people's reactions to all kinds of events. For example, Kimball, Levy, Ohtake and Tsutsui found that happiness dipped considerably—nearly as much as it did after Katrina—after the Pakistan earthquake. This is evidence that people were moved by the suffering of those hurt by the Pakistan earthquake, even though they may have felt too tapped out by their donations to Katrina victims to give again.

Short-run movements in happiness may be useful both in helping people to notice what they care about most in their daily lives and in giving people a sense of perspective about what isn't so important, Kimball says. For example, "The details of day-to-day political wrangling probably won't show up in national happiness," he says.

Although the effect of news on happiness is powerful and revealing it does not offer an easy way to be happier. "It doesn't do any good to tell people to go out and get good news," Kimball says. "They are already doing what they can to get good news." It also doesn't help people's happiness overall to know that high social rank adds to happiness, since the only way to gain social rank is at the expense of someone else, he adds. The things people can do to be happier in the long run are often simple—getting a good night's sleep or spending more time with friends, he notes. "People think they want to be happy, but for some people that only means they want good news, which no one can control. Given other concerns and worries, not everyone is willing to devote time to being happy."

One of the great mysteries about happiness is that economic growth has not raised U.S. or Japanese happiness much if any in the last 50 years, according to Kimball. "That doesn't mean that money can't buy happiness—only that people don't know how to convert time and money into happiness or that they have chosen other things instead," Kimball says. "Our complex, modern lives offer greater potential than ever for us to be happy, as long as we sacrifice money for the sake of time and put enough time into the things that will make us happy."

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