New study finds that happiness is highest in nations with the most government intervention. Of 15 nations, Norway ranks No. 1 in happiness; US, only No. 10.
Heiko Junge/Scanpix Norway/Reuters/File
In a time of vicious budget debates on Capitol Hill, a new study finds that the path to happiness might be through big government.
But the findings aren't likely to be the last word on the topic, underscoring the difficulty of answering the prevailing political question in the U.S. right now: How large should government be?
The results, which rank the U.S. 10th out of 15 industrialized democracies in life satisfaction of citizens, seems to suggest that bumping up social welfare expenditures would make for a happier populace. But "suggest" is the key word, according to University of Pennsylvania economist Justin Wolfers, who was not involved in the research.
"The study as a whole is suggestive, but not convincing," Wolfers told LiveScience. "And the reason I say that is it's ultimately a study of [only] 15 countries." [See the rankings of all 15 countries]
Nonetheless, said Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California who studies life satisfaction, the findings are "pretty plausible." Citizens in countries that transition from socialism to capitalism often don't experience the happiness boost one might expect from the resulting influx of goods and services, Easterlin told LiveScience. The reason may be that they lose out on perks like guaranteed health care.
"There really are areas where it seems like the market doesn't do the job," Easterlin said.
To tackle the question of whether government makes people happy by providing social services, or unhappy by squelching efficiency and growth, Baylor University political scientist Patrick Flavin and his colleagues used data from the 2005 to 2008 World Values Survey. This survey asks residents of countries around the world how satisfied they are with their lives, among other questions. The researchers limited their analysis to industrialized democracies so they'd be comparing a similar slate of nations. Among the countries studied were Australia, France, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. [Read Who's Happier: Europeans or Americans?]
For each country, the researchers measured the size of the government in four ways: the country's tax revenue as a percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the government's consumption as a percent of real per capita GDP, average unemployment benefits and social welfare expenditures as a percent of GDP.
After controlling for factors that could skew the results, including health and age of respondents, church attendance, unemployment rates, and the level of individualism in the country's culture, the researchers found that the happiest countries were those with big, busy governments. The result remained even when the researchers took into account the fact that government size and benefits can influence variables such as unemployment and marriage rates, Flavin told LiveScience.
"The jump in happiness in going from a country that's low on the government intervention scale to one that is high on the government intervention scale is about the same as the effect of getting married," Flavin said.
Out of the 15 countries studied, the United States ranked 14th for both tax revenue as a percent of GDP and in social welfare expenditures as a percent of GDP; 13th for government's share of consumption; 11th for unemployment benefits; and 10th for life satisfaction.