Politics is even more depressing to Americans than the recession

at 06:24 PM ET, 09/22/2011

Princeton economist Angus Deaton has taken a close look at whether the recession has actually made Americans feel less happy. In a new paper, he analyzes data from a daily Gallup poll that asks Americans about how their lives are going and if they’re satisfied with their standard of living — an index of what happiness researchers call “subjective well-being.” Here’s a graph showing what he found, based on an 21-day moving average of the Gallup response. The solid line represents all Americans, and the dotted line represents those 60 and older, whom researchers have previously found to be happier on average than the rest of the population:

There are some big changes that seem to make sense: a big drop following the collapse of Lehman and the financial crisis. But the bigger trend seems to be perplexing. Overall happiness seems to have risen substantially since the beginning of 2009 — at levels even higher than before the current crisis — even though the recession and economic slump would have presumably taken a big toll on the American psyche.

Deaton puzzled over this shift himself and concluded the rise in happiness actually had to do with the very questions that Gallup was asking. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, Gallup posed the questions about political preferences first, asking whether the poll participants planned to vote, whether they approved of the sitting president, whether the country was headed in the right direction, and so forth. When those questions were dropped in early 2009, reported happiness immediately spiked. According to Deaton’s analysis, the very act of thinking about politics makes Americans feel less happy and satisfied with their lives — an effect that’s almost as big as being unemployed.

“People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives,” he writes. “The effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.”

In the graph below, the shaded portion marks when Gallup got rid of the political questions and the subsequent spike in happiness levels. Gallup also added a transition question to help respondents distinguish between political and personal questions (“Now thinking about your personal life, are you satisfied with your personal life today?”), which had a similar effect.

Deaton then adjusted the previous data to eliminate the effect of the political questions, which may gives us a better picture of how much the recession has affected Americans’ well-being. Overall, the corrected levels are lower than they were before the financial collapse, but not substantially different than they were at the beginning of our economic troubles:

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