Happiness Is... Getting Your Five-A-Day
HAPPINESS IS... GETTING YOUR FIVE-A-DAY
Professor Andrew Oswald, Department of Economics
Economics is concerned with understanding and improving human happiness, says Professor Andrew Oswald, and yet virtually no attempts have been made to try to measure happiness. To cheer us, Professor Oswald talks more about the economics of happiness: a growing field that has revealed some surprising insights into human psychology and behaviour.
“I’m going to talk about human happiness - it’s hard for me to think of a more important or interesting topic than that,” begins Professor Andrew Oswald in his talk as part of the Warwick Economics Summit. First, though, he sets the scene about how “his” type of economics – the economics of happiness – looks set to become broader in the future, and how he sees this discipline reaching out to the hard sciences.
If you have studied economics, he explains, you’ve probably had virtually no education about how the hard sciences and the social sciences might come together, yet both study the same kind of animal, namely humans. In the future, he says, economics will increasingly embrace behavioural science - including psychiatry and psychology. And as an example of the range of topics that the economists of the future will be studying, he will be talking about primates, fruit and vegetables and hearts: “trying to understand the forces that mould human happiness in people like us”.
In the future, economics will increasingly embrace behavioural science
“How is your happiness affected by your age and your gender?” asks Professor Oswald. “Women tend to report higher happiness scores in Western countries; income buys a fair amount of happiness, it appears from the data, in Western societies; education - generally you’ve done the right thing coming to Warwick University today because education, we think, buys a certain amount of extra happiness and mental health, even on top of the extra income that it certainly generates.” Place factors are also important, says Professor Oswald, referring to a recent study that he came across that looked at how pollution affected happiness. “Even though you can’t detect the air quality at all well as an average person, we now know from daily data - from the US, from China, from many other countries, that if you chart the SO2 levels, for example, in air quality, then as the level of pollution - even at quite minor levels - goes up and down, people raise or lower their happiness scores in a systematic way. That’s after controlling for income and many other factors.”
Food for thought
These researchers show that there’s a strong link between your optimism and how much fruit and vegetable substance is detectable in your blood
Research that Professor Oswald conducted with David G. Blanchflower from Dartmouth College, and Sarah Stewart-Brown from Warwick Medical School, compared the numbers of fruit and vegetables consumed every day alongside data on self-reported health. Interestingly the positive relationship between diet and self-reported health carries over even after you’ve adjusted for many other different independent variables, including your income and how much meat you eat. “In our work we’re finding the equivalent effect with your mental well-being and how many fruits and vegetables you consume,” says Professor Oswald.
And there are other interesting studies whose results seem to back up the findings of Oswald, Blanchflower and Stewart-Brown. Harvard School of Public Health recently released a study about the concentration of carotenoid (“an organic substance that you could think of as an antioxidant or linked to antioxidants”) in the blood and its links to optimism. High levels of carotenoid (otherwise known as beta-carotene) can be found in orange fruit and vegetables and green, leafy vegetables. “These researchers show that there’s a strong link between your optimism and how much fruit and vegetable substance (you might say, speaking very loosely) is detectable in your blood,” says Professor Oswald.
Andrew Oswald is a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick and a senior fellow with the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). His work lies mainly at the border of economics and behavioural sciences, but now appears on occasion to venture into primatology.
Image: Grayson, our granddaughter, eating a Georgia peach and enjoying every bite by Bruce Tuten (via Flickr).
Oswald, Andrew J. and Wu, Stephen. (2011) Well-being across America. Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol.93 (No.4). pp. 1118-1134. ISSN 0034-6535
Oswald, Andrew J. . (2010) Emotional prosperity and the Stiglitz commission. British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol.48 (No.4). pp. 651-669. ISSN 0007-1080
Blanchflower, David G. and Oswald, Andrew J. . (2009) The U-shape without controls: a response to Glenn. Social Science & Medicine, Vol.69 (No.4). pp. 486-488. ISSN 0277-9536