By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/20/2004 10:37:16 AM ET 2004-12-20T15:37:16

The economy has been giving off mixed signals for months. It might be time to tune into an entirely different frequency.

A growing body of research on the “economics of happiness” proposes that material wealth is overrated.

These controversial researchers do not say economic growth is undesirable, and they note that unemployed people are almost always unhappy.

But they say policy-makers should pay more attention to what people say about their satisfaction with life as they consider how far to go in the pursuit of unbridled growth.

“The problem we have found is that as (gross domestic product) has gone up, happiness doesn’t go up with it,” said David Blanchflower, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College.

One study by Blanchflower and an associate, based on interviews of 100,000 people over three decades, concludes that despite sharp improvements in living standards “the USA has, in aggregate, apparently become more miserable over the last quarter of a century.”

A critical factor in personal happiness appears to be marriage — or at least a monogamous sexual relationship. A widowed or divorced person would have to make an extra $100,000 a year to be as happy as a comparable married person, Blanchflower and co-author Andrew Oswald estimated.

Blanchflower and Oswald also looked at surveys of sexual activity and found that in general, “The more sex, the happier the person.”

“People who have no sexual activity are noticeably less happy than average,” they declared.

Such research may seem far outside the realm of economics but is gaining wide recognition. In 2002 the Nobel prize in economics was shared by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman for work that has inspired the field of behavioral economics.

Other experts dismiss much of the research, noting that happiness and sexual activity are self-reported and impossible to verify.

As this year’s Nobel-winning economist Edward Prescott put it: “The mind reels at the thought of the ill-conceived policies that would be concocted if the stated goal were to increase gross national happiness.”

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