The Pursuit of Happiness in the U.S.: Inequality in Agency, Optimism, and Life Chances

IZA Logo

IZA Seminar

Place: Schaumburg-Lippe-Str. 9, 53113 Bonn

Date: 29.10.2015, 12:15 - 13:30


Presentation by 

Carol Lee Graham (Brookings Institution)


The Declaration of Independence promises the opportunity to seek life fulfillment and happiness – in its fullest sense- for all U.S. citizens. Is happiness for all an increasingly elusive dream? There is increasing debate – both academic and political – about the extent to which the American Dream is equally available to all citizens today. U.S. trends in opportunity and in distributional outcomes are becoming more unequal by any number of measures. Is happiness as unequally shared as income in the U.S.? While U.S. attitudes about inequality and opportunity have historically been exceptional, are they still? Our well-being metrics depict “two” Americas: a wealthy group with high levels of life satisfaction and corresponding ability to plan for and invest in the future, and a poor group with lower life satisfaction, higher levels of stress, and much less optimism about the future. The gap between the poor and the rich is greatest in terms of mobility attitudes, e.g. beliefs that hard work can get people ahead. And these well-being gaps are, for the most part, much greater than they are between poor and rich Latin Americans, a region long known for its high levels of income inequality. Individuals with higher levels of well-being have better future outcomes, in terms of productivity, health, and social behaviors, either because of intrinsic motivation or because of the capacity to have longer time horizons and preferences. Current patterns in well-being and attitudes about the future thus suggest that the gaps between the lives of the rich and poor will only grow larger. A potentially more positive result from our research is that belief in hard work mediates the unhappiness of the least happy Americans. Thus continuing to believe in the American Dream provides some solace for those respondents who do.

For more information, please contact