In a column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank has written on “Trump has made our lives worse. Here’s the proof.” He labels this apparent outcome of the “Trump Effect.”
Since 1972 the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago has annually studied the nation’s mood. They survey people to find out how they identify their level of happiness. As of this summer, an all-time record low of 14% declared themselves “very happy.” This compares with 29% saying that at the lowest point after the 2008 financial crisis. OTOH, fully 36% declared themselves to be “satisfied” with their financial situation and a record low expressed dissatisfaction, the survey taken at a time when expanded unemployment benefits were still in effect. But Milbank declared that this amounted to a disjuncture between peoples’ economic conditions and declared happiness, with this contradicting, or at least failing to support, a longstanding finding from happiness surveys in the past.
This may be an overstated conclusion. Milbank did not report on it, but studies over the years have found that higher-income people tend to declare themselves to be happier than lower-income people. This may still hold. In the US this finding has been part of the famous “Easterlin Paradox,” that higher-income people report higher levels of life satisfaction (or happiness) at any given point in time while over time as national income rises, happiness levels do not rise. Indeed, another data source with a longer time horizon on this found US national happiness to have gradually declined since 1957. It must be noted that this finding of declining national happiness as national income rises does not show up in al nations, although it has been observed in several others besides the US, leading to much controversy and debate. Richard Easterlin himself (still alive well into his 90s) has emphasized the impact of distribution of income and perceived economic security, with peoples’ happiness depending on how they compare themselves with others. So even though income rose rapidly, the ending of old age pensions and rising income inequality led happiness levels in China to decline from around 1990 to around 2004, although they have increased again since as pensions were extended to rural areas.