Did the Decline in Social Connections Depress Americans’ Happiness?

Abstract

During the last 30 years US citizens experienced, on average, a decline in reported happiness, social connections, and confidence in institutions. We show that a remarkable portion of the decrease in happiness is predicted by the decline in social connections and confidence in institutions. We carry out our investigation in three steps. First, we run a happiness regression that includes various indicators of social connections and confidence in institutions, alongside with own income, reference income, and the usual socio-demographic controls. We find that indicators of social connections and confidence in institutions are positively and significantly correlated with happiness. Second, we investigate the evolution of social connections and confidence in institutions over time, finding that they generally show a declining trend. Third, we calculate the variation in happiness over time as predicted by each of its statistically significant correlates, finding that the decrease in happiness is mainly predicted by the decline in social connections and by the growth in reference income. More precisely, the sum of the negative changes in happiness predicted by the reduction in social connections and the increase in reference income more than offsets the positive change predicted by the growth of household income. Also, the reduction in happiness predicted by the decline in confidence in institutions is non-negligible, although substantially smaller than the one predicted by either social connections or reference income.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The forerunners of this explanation are Veblen (1899), and Duesenberry (1949). A similar explanation is that based on positional consumption (Frank 1985; Layard 1980).

  2. 2.

    The explanation based on hedonic adaptation is consistent with the ‘set-point theory’, according to which a there is a fixed baseline for individual happiness, e.g., by personality traits, while actual happiness changes only temporarily due to external events (Costa and McCrae 1980). For a critic discussion of this theory see Headey (2007).

  3. 3.

    Confidence in institutions is sometimes not seen as a constitutive element of social capital, but as one of its correlates. Several papers, however, do include confidence in institutions among social capital indicators (for instance Paxton 1999), following a typical conceptualization applied in the in political science literature.

  4. 4.

    The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations has become familiar in social sciences. Various empirical studies in psychology have found that extrinsic motivations can crowd out intrinsic ones. This has given rise not only to a lively debate in psychology (Sansone and Harackievicz 2000), but it has also attracted interest among economists (Frey 1997; Kreps 1997; Benabou and Tirole 2003; for a survey see Frey and Jegen 2001).

  5. 5.

    See Uhlaner (1989) and Gui and Sugden (2005). Some studies have shown that relational goods are stringly correlated with reported well-being in surveys administered on nations’ representative samples, (Bruni and Stanca 2008; Helliwell 2006; Helliwell et al. 2009a, 2009b; and Helliwell and Putnam 2004) although relational goods are sometimes referred to with a different label. These papers echo a large psychological literature (e.g., Deci and Ryan 1985; Ryan and Deci 2001; Kasser 2002, for a review) which documents that intrinsic motivations positively affect people’s well-being, whereas extrinsic motivations display negative effects.

  6. 6.

    Knack (2003) does not refer to intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Moreover, the types of groups recognized in the GSS do not coincide with those listed in the database used by Knack, so that our classifications are partly different. However, this is not the only reason for the minor differences between our and Knack's classification. We made some further changes because of a different interpretation: we find that groups whose main objective is to foster collective actions do not necessarily fall in the Olson category. For instance, we listed political parties among other groups—and not among Olson groups as Knack does—because, arguably, membership in a political party is not necessarily a matter of rent-seeking.

  7. 7.

    The GSS covers quite a long period of time—more than 30 years—and counts more than 45 thousand observations that are representative of the US census regions. However, the waves have not been carried out on a yearly basis. In particular, after 1974 we have observations only for the years 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004. .

  8. 8.

    For instance, reported happiness is measured in the GSS by the survey question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?”, associating the numbers 1 to 3 to the three answers. We intend a higher number to mean greater happiness, so we associate 3 with “very happy”, 2 with “pretty happy” and 1 with “not too happy”.

  9. 9.

    Indeed, when marital status is added, the coefficient of household size becomes negative and significant (see Table 3).

  10. 10.

    Other two potential problems with our SCC variables are that they may be highly correlated and that they may be indicators of a smaller group of underlying variables. However, the correlation matrix shows that no pairwise correlation coefficient is greater than .45, and that three coefficients among the few that lie between .3 and .45 pertain to the indicators of trust in individuals. Moreover, a principal component analysis on all indicators (including the three trust indicators) shows that no component accounts for more than 11% of the total variation, while 18 components account for at least 3% each, and 29 components account for at least 2% each. In order to get 80% of the variation, we need at least 20 components out of 31, while for 90% of the variation, we need 25 components. Finally, we consider potential systematic factors underlying the indicators of confidence in institutions, concluding that there is no stable pattern of factors over time. The estimates can be found in the Appendix.

  11. 11.

    We do not have an intuitive explanation for the result regarding confidence in the press. It may be that more confidence in the press correlates with some personal trait that is against reporting high happiness.

  12. 12.

    The status “living as married” in the happiness equation emerges as not statistically significant in the case of the UK (Blanchflower and Oswald 2004), although it has been found both significantly and positively correlated in the case of a heterogeneous cross-section of countries (Helliwell 2003). The GSS provides data on cohabitation but only for a few year-specific observations, making them useless for our purposes.

  13. 13.

    The sociological literature has argued that social capital has not declined in the US, at least for what concerns membership in voluntary organizations and political participation. However, the contrasting evidence produced by, for instance, Baumgartner and Walker (1988) and Ladd (1996), has been either contested on methodological grounds (Smith 1990) or presented as fragmentary, as in Ladd (1996).

  14. 14.

    Strong evidence has been provided that happiness equations estimated with OLS are, for all practical purposes, equivalent to equations estimated with ordered logit and ordered probit (Ferrer-i-Carbonell and Frijters 2004).

  15. 15.

    Note also that the total variation associated with income is probably slightly underestimated because we lack observations on income for the year 2004 (we have used the 2002 data on income in place of that for 2004, which presumably would have provided greater income values).

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Andrea Battinelli, Marina Bianchi, Leonardo Boncinelli, Paola Bordandini, Roberto Cartocci, Sergio Currarini, Andrew Clark, Massimo D’Antoni, Sergio Destefanis, Massimo De Vito, Francesco Drago, Daniela Federici, Francesco Ferrante, Kyosuke Kurita, Mario Lavezzi, Malgorzata Micucka, Joel Mokyr, Tushar Kanti Nandi, Ugo Pagano, Vittorio Pelligra, Fabio Petri, Robert Putnam, Ernesto Savaglio, Betsey Stevenson, Mauro Sylos Labini, Silvia Tiezzi, and Giulio Zanella for their valuable comments. We especially thank Samuel Bowles, John Helliwell, and the anonymous referees of this journal for their important suggestions on how to improve our results. All mistakes remain ours. We acknowledge the PRIN 2004–2007 research group on “Economics, happiness and inter-personal relationships” for financial support to this research.

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Correspondence to Ennio Bilancini.

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Bartolini, S., Bilancini, E. & Pugno, M. Did the Decline in Social Connections Depress Americans’ Happiness?. Soc Indic Res 110, 1033–1059 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-011-9971-x

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Keywords

  • Social connections
  • Trust in institutions
  • Social capital
  • Happiness
  • Subjective well-being
  • Easterlin paradox
  • Relational goods
  • Intrinsic motivations