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Go on, give society a break and be happy, but not too happy, Deakin economist says

13 June 2011

A happy population is a giving population it would seem, but a population that is too happy is bad for society overall, Deakin University researcher Cahit Guven has found.

Dr Guven, from the University's School of Accounting, Economics and Finance set out to explore whether society benefits if people are happy and satisfied with their lives, finding that is does.

"Happiness has been found to increase personal income and health and international studies have shown that social capital and trust are strongly linked to happiness," Dr Guven said.

"But I wanted to know does happiness really pay for society.

"For instance do happy individuals engage in more things that benefit society such as volunteer activities than unhappy ones."

Dr Guven said past researchers had established that well being and social capital were connected to each other however he wanted to see if there was a stronger relationship between the two states.

"This has been difficult until now because researchers have found it difficult to find an external event which would affect people's sense of well-being enough to impact only social capital."

Dr Guven compared the people living in West Germany in 1984 and 2007 (similarly, East Germans in 1992 and 2007) by looking at their levels of happiness and optimism and its effect on the frequency of volunteer work, attendance at cultural events, social gatherings and religious events, their desire to vote and help others, respect for law and order, their social participation and their attachment to their neighbourhood.

"I found a deep link between happiness at the starting year of the survey and levels of personal trust 20 years later," Dr Guven said.

"Happier people were found to be less cautious dealing with strangers and on the whole believed that most people were fair and helpful."

"This suggests happiness at a very early stage of life can be used to predict personal trust up to two decades later."

Dr Guven said happiness in 1984 was able to be used to predict levels of social capital in 1992, 2000 and 2007.

"Even a permanent shock such as the reunification of the two Germanys did not change the results," he said.

"In the years 1992, 2000 and 2007 a one unit increase of happiness had a reciprocal increase on the frequency of volunteer work."

Dr Guven said the study also showed happiness was a double edged sword – extreme happiness actually decreased social capital.

"In effect too much happiness and too much unhappiness are both costly for society as they lead to lower social capital.

"As our research demonstrates extremely happy people are overly optimistic and similarly extremely unhappy people are pessimistic, both states lead to behaviours that are unwise."

Further information

* Are Happier People Better Citizens, Cahit Guven, KYKLOS, Vol 64 – May 2011, No 2, pp 178 to 192

News facts
  • Does happiness really pay for society?
  • German study investigates whether happy individuals engage in more things that benefit society such as volunteer activities than unhappy ones.
  • Study finds a one unit increase of happiness had a reciprocal increase on the frequency of volunteer worke

Media contact

Sandra Kingston
Deakin Media Relations
0422 005 485
Email: sandra.kingston@deakin.edu.au

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13th June 2011