How Are You Doing?

People (Americans, at least) routinely greet each other by saying, “Hi, how you doing?” We don’t really mean this literally, of course, because the answer to such a question is undoubtedly complex and highly nuanced if you chose to answer it thoughtfully.

If you wanted to address the question scientifically, you’d need a reliable measure of personal satisfaction, well-being, happiness, or some other variable that seems hard to quantify. In the social sciences the approach to such data is to use statistical scores from surveys. Example: on a scale from 1 to 5, how happy are you?

A new study by two economists attempts to make happiness judgments less subjective. The study compares subjective responses on well-being from over 1 million individuals across every state in the US to an objective measure of quality of life, namely income level in the very same states. The results are corrected for age, gender, marital status, employment status, and other personal factors (Science 327: 5965 [29 January 2010], 576–579).

Would you be surprised to learn that wages and well-being are inversely correlated to a surprisingly high level of statistical significance? The explanation is that higher income is needed to compensate for people choosing to live in less desirable places.

Put differently, money may not buy happiness but it can make up for certain deficiencies. The authors hope that their approach may help policy makers make appropriate decisions about the goals of government.

My own view is that the best things in life aren’t, well, things.

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.