Cheer Up!

Overall, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

This is the question participants in the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey have been answering since 1972. Recently, University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers took this survey’s data from 1972 through 2006 to see if people had gotten happier since the decade of bell bottoms and disco.

What they found was that, as a whole, we have not gotten any more cheery. However, the gap between those who are “very happy” and those who are “not too happy” has narrowed significantly. “The U.S. population as a whole is not getting happier,” Stevenson said. “For every unhappy person who became happier, there’s someone on the other side coming down.”

56% of participants chose “pretty” happy in 2006, versus only 46% in 1972. But, the number of people who feel “very happy” has dropped, while the number of people who self-identify as “not too happy” has increased—in relatively equal amounts.

When characterized by race, whites were less happy than they were in 70s, while non-whites were happier. When divided into genders, the researchers found that women have gotten less happy, while men have bigger smiles on their faces. Women’s lib—is it not so glorious after all? Has digital cable and the option for multiple sports channels cheered up the menfolk? The explanation is unclear, but certainly more complicated than that.

The outlier in the study was found in the education category. Those with a college degree or above were happier than their groovy counterparts, while those who did not have a high school diploma were far more bummin’ than their equivalents were thirty years ago.

Because this trend differs from the trends being observed in income, consumption, and leisure time (where the gaps are all increasing), Stevenson and Wolfers say that the cause for the narrowing happiness gap is probably not money. A useful explanation is yet to come, but in the meantime, get happy, people! Even if you miss Led Zeppelin and unruly hair, at least Nixon’s not President.