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Pursuing Happiness: Social Mobility and Well-Being

Man holding American flag

Societies with more social mobility seem to have more broadly shared opportunities, and less discrimination and social unrest. But does social mobility also mean higher levels of well-being? Do the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness go hand in hand?

Mobility Does Not Equal Happiness…

It turns out that upwardly mobile people are not always happier than those with less mobility. In countries around the world—ranging from Peru to Russia to China—I find that upwardly mobile respondents often report themselves to be less happy than their less mobile counterparts. Unhappiness may drive our “frustrated achievers” to seek change, or their expectations increase as they get better off. And in general, change and uncertainty are linked to lower levels of well-being.

Yet if new levels of prosperity become stable, well-being increases, at least in some dimensions. Based on world-wide data, Milena Nikolova and I find that acquiring the capabilities—such as education, skills, and stable employment—necessary for upward mobility brings higher levels of stress, which can impact happiness, but at the same time give people a greater sense of purpose and pride. 

…But Believing in Mobility Does

Perceived prospects of future mobility, meanwhile, are strongly linked with well-being. In countries as different as the United States and Honduras, individuals who report higher prospects of upward mobility are happier and more likely to make investments in their own and their children’s future, as in health and education. The U.S. has traditionally had a reputation as a country with exceptional rates of mobility. And even though U.S. mobility rates today are among the lowest of the OECD, that public perception remains and helps explain the high tolerance the U.S. public has for inequality. At least until recently, the average U.S. respondent believed that he or she would be above mean income in the future.

Doubly Bad News If American Dream Fades

Several new studies suggest significant declines in U.S. mobility rates. And there is some evidence that public faith in the American dream is eroding. Lack of faith in the future tends to mean  lower levels of well-being.

More Data Needed

Without consistent, publicly available data on social mobility and well-being, public perceptions will remain misconceived. And without good metrics and informed public discourse, we cannot have good policies.

Rather ironically, here we should take a page out of Britain’s book. While the UK is hardly known for its social mobility, in fact rates there are no worse than those in the U.S. The British government has taken the lead among the OECD countries in measuring both well-being and social mobility. It just issued its second annual report on well-being, and its first report of a new government commission on social mobility. While data alone will not increase mobility or well-being, public awareness of trends in both is necessary to provide support for the kinds of policies that will.

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