Wilkinson and economists like Oswald and his compatriot Lord Layard are thinking about the policy implications of happiness research. My own interest is a little different: Can the new breed of happiness economists offer us any tips for happier living?
Much of the advice is pretty slippery. For instance, married people are much happier than single people. So perhaps you should get married? (Even better if your fiancée's sister's husband is unemployed.) Not so fast. More sophisticated surveys show that the causation runs both ways: Happy people tend to find spouses, while those suffering from depression don't find it so easy. And--not surprisingly--some people do brilliantly out of marriage, and others are utterly miserable. As an economist, I'm afraid I have no idea whether you should propose to that cute girl you've been seeing. (You may or may not take comfort in Oswald's finding that you can always get out of marriage: People are happier immediately after a divorce than immediately before.)
Oswald also suggests self-employment, if you can pull it off without losing out financially. "Everything associated with self-employment--independence, autonomy--is also associated with being happy." Both Oswald and Richard Layard argue that relationships are more important than money--and that includes professional relationships. "I've come to believe in the old-fashioned view that one should be tender in one's dealings with colleagues," Lord Layard told me in an interview. And what else? "Think about what you have rather than what you don't have, both materially and in your relationships and your personal strengths. To use the language of economics, don't try to rectify things that aren't your comparative advantage." This is spiritual thinking from an economist, but Oswald goes one better. If you're depressed, why not just wait? "There's a kind of J-curve describing happiness over time. Your late 30s are the most unhappy period of your life, but then the older you get the happier you are. Life really does begin again at 40."
I think the most useful research, though, is by an honorary economist: Danny Kahneman, the only psychologist ever to win the Nobel Prize in economics. He asked nearly 1,000 working women in Texas to reflect on their previous day, list the different episodes in it, what they were doing and how they were feeling. Some results are predictable enough: Work is miserable, and commuting is worse. Others are not so obvious. For instance, praying is fun, but looking after the kids is not. Spending time with your friends is one of the most enjoyable things you can do, but spending time with your spouse is merely OK. In fact, parents or other relatives turn out to make more enjoyable company than the supposed love of your life.