Does economic growth improve people’s happiness and well-being? This is a complex question largely contingent on what we understand ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ to be. Research that focuses on the relationship between economic growth and a psychological or subjective understanding of well-being – measured via life satisfaction surveys, or surveys on the frequency and intensity of positive emotions – has tended to find little relationship within modern contexts, at least longitudinally. Nonetheless, wealthier people self-report higher levels of subjective well-being than poorer people within the same country, and this is what we call the Easterlin Paradox (Easterlin 1974; Easterlin 2016).
Contemporary survey data is too short to adequately examine this question of the historical relationship between growth and subjective well-being. This blog post therefore outlines my research examining the trend in subjective well-being in UK men between 1800 and 1900, a long period which experienced sustained modern economic growth for the first time in history, and the effect of which has been long debated. Life expectancy, working hours, human height and other aspects or proxies of well-being sometimes diverged from and sometimes converged with rapidly rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita during the nineteenth century in Britain, but it is generally agreed that, despite a rocky initial few decades, human well-being under most quantifiable metrics was comfortably higher in 1900 than it was in 1800 (a topic covered in this blog earlier here and here).
The trend in subjective well-being does not confirm this interpretation, however. Preliminary evidence suggests that it neither rose nor fell significantly across the entire period in question, at least among adult men.
How is subjective well-being measured for 1800-1900?
I focus in on ‘emotional well-being’, i.e. the extent and frequency of positive emotions vis-à-vis negative emotions experienced. This can be understood as a component of or merely a cause of subjective well-being and happiness in most, though not all, understandings of these concepts. As we cannot ask those who lived through the nineteenth century to answer survey questions, we must resort to different means of measuring the trend in emotional well-being. Namely, I analyse the emotional valence – that is, the emotional positivity or negativity – of language expressed in a corpus of pamphlets published between 1800 and 1900, calculating the frequency of happiness-indicating relative to sadness-indicating words.
The choice of ‘happiness-indicating’ and ‘sadness-indicating’ words is a careful one, and I pick two sentiment lexicons: one, is based on a crowdsourced valence ranking of the 10,000 most common words in modern English from Dodds et al (2011); the second is more historical, and is based on synonyms of the words happiness and sadness, picked using automatic synonym generation tools directed to the historical corpora, and cross-checked with the Oxford English Dictionary’s Historical Thesaurus. The period 1800 to 1900 captures a period in which a modern definition of the word ‘happiness’ had been largely cemented.
The idea that the feelings expressed in texts may reflect those actually felt by the producers and consumers of texts is borne out by contemporary research (e.g. on social media posts; Hills et al. 2019 reviews some of this literature), but little applied to historical contexts. 19th century pamphlets make a good testing ground for this methodological application on account of their widespread consumption, very low prices, populist nature, emotionally-charged language and the relatively high levels of literacy in the British population at the time (furthermore, pamphlets were often orally propagated). The expressed valence of pamphlets can therefore capture the felt valence of a large part of the population.
I did the analysis on 19,682 pamphlets, mostly of a political genre, totalling 230 million words taken from the JSTOR 19th Century British Pamphlets Collection. Tests show this corpus to be largely representative of pamphlets held in libraries throughout the UK, and probably consumed by working-class readers (at least when split into sub-corpora). The provenance of the pamphlets suggests, however, that large parts of the UK – notably Ireland, Wales and the Southwest of England – are unrepresented. Also, it is unlikely that women or children wrote or consumed many of these pamphlets, so we can only make conclusions about the trend in the emotional well-being of men.
What happened to emotional well-being between 1800 and 1900?
The following graphs show the results of emotional well-being indicated by these pamphlets according to the two different valence lexicons, and both are plotted against log GDP per capita. Both graphs appear messy and fluctuating – this is to be expected from this kind of word frequency data, and it is only the trend that is of interest. Quantitative analyses do not show a clear time trend of the emotional well-being index, or a systematic relationship between this and GDP per capita or real wages. Output and wages pulled away from emotional well-being as they began their sustained growth less than halfway through the century, while emotional well-being remained flat, supporting the existence of the Easterlin Paradox.
The reasons for the stagnation of expressed emotional well-being during the nineteenth century can only be tentatively suggested. Rising earnings inequality during the century, or declining social capital (e.g. because of the enclosure movement) may have counter-balanced the expected gains in emotional well-being caused by material improvements.
Also plausible is the relative income hypothesis, which holds that the utility derived from income is a function of its relation to a national or international reference point that changes as national or international income changes. Even in the grinding poverty of the nineteenth century, social emulation (a key part of the consumer revolution unfolding at the time) was a crucial input to emotional well-being.
Health, material living standards and emotional well-being
The implications for long-run health are two-fold: first, whatever improvements to physical health in the British male population were made in the nineteenth century did not translate into greater felt ‘happiness’. Secondly, though physical health and well-being is deeply affected by societal change, the same cannot be said for psychological-emotional health and well-being. It appears that subjective well-being gravitates towards a stable, probably positive, ‘set-point’ – what Cummins (2003) described as the internal ‘homeostatic regulation’ of subjective well-being, a kind of biological adaptation.
This finding must be corroborated by the further construction of long-term time series of emotional well-being, for instance if more and better historical corpora become digitised, which could confirm the validity of this research’s measures.
- Cummins, R. 2003. Normative life satisfaction: Measurement issues and a homeostatic model. Social Indicators Research, 64 (2):225–56.
- Dodds, P. S., K. D. Harris, I. M. Kloumann, C. A. Bliss, and C. M. Danforth. 2011. The temporal patterns of happiness and information in a global social network: Hedonometrics and Twitter. PLoS One, 6 (12):e26752.
- Easterlin, R. A. 1974. Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In Nations and households in economic growth: Essays in honour of Moses Abramovitz, ed. P. A. David and M. W. Reder, 89–125. New York: Academic Press.
- Easterlin, R. A. 2016. Paradox lost? IZA Discussion Papers. Bonn: Institute of Labor Economics, 1–33.
- Hills, T. T., E. Proto, D. Sgroi, and C. I. Seresinhe. 2019. Historical analysis of national subjective wellbeing using millions of digitized books. Nature Human Behaviour, 3 (12):1271–5.
- JSTOR. JSTOR 19th century British pamphlets collection. Last accessed June 04, 2021 (link).
London School of Economics (alumnus)