Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

All of us immediately recognize these powerful sentences as being part of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. Happiness is an important concept and has been the object of increased study in political science and comparative politics. Ronald Inglehart (he of World Values Survey fame) argues that there is a strong relationship between happiness and democracy across countries. Inglehart writes:

Correlation is not causation, and this linkage could reflect any of the following things: (1) living under democratic institutions makes people much happier than living under authoritarian institutions; or (2) high levels of subjective well-being are conducive to democratic institutions; or (3) the correlation could be spurious, due to the fact that both subjective well-being and democracy are strongly correlated with some other variable such as high levels of economic development.

Solving this puzzle has far-reaching implications. If the linkage is not spurious and democracy makes people happy, this provides a strong additional argument on behalf of democracy; while if high levels of happiness are conducive to democracy, this can lead to a better understanding of how democracy emerges and flourishes. Using World Values Survey data on happiness levels from 1981 to 2006, and the Freedom House measures of democracy levels from 1972 to 2005, this paper analyzes the relationships between happiness and democracy in order to determine what is causing what.

How happy are Americans? How happy are Germans, Chinese, or Brazilians, for that matter? Who are the happiest people on earth? According to the new World Database of Happiness, it’s the Danes, Swiss and Maltese. Is this a political cultural trait, as Inglehart assumes, or are there structural and institutional factors at work? All three countries are rather small, and European. (Malta and Denmark are, additionally, amongst the most homogeneous states in the world, and this could be having an effect, given new research by Robert Putnam on the potential socially, politically, and economically detrimental effects of ethnic diversity.) Americans, by the way, are ranked #25 in level of happiness.