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200 Days in the Life of the College

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Saturday, October 16

A few notes on the secret of happiness

By Jeff Cardoni ’11

Once or twice a month at the Balkan-Hadley in Utica, Associate Professor of Economics Stephen Wu plays jazz piano with Music Professor Doc Woods, who accompanies Wu on bass. The two work from a small book of jazz standards, which, as Wu explains, function as stepping-off points for improvisation and new ideas as they perform. The patrons of the small restaurant take notice as the pair begin and pause in their dining to applaud when the two take a break.

Recently, Wu’s research ideas — part of an important and growing body of literature on the economics of happiness — have found far larger audiences. “More economists and policymakers are becoming interested in subjective measures of happiness,” he explains.

Objective measures of happiness may include GDP, national income and other such hard numbers; subjective measures include respondents’ own feelings about their emotional well-being, as documented in surveys. The fundamental question, Wu says, is simply, “If we’re getting wealthier, are we really happier?” Wu sought to answer this question by examining the link between subjective and objective measures of happiness. “We found that there is a very strong correlation” between the two, he says. “This validates the subjective measures.”

Last January, Wu published an article with Andrew Oswald in the journal Science. Alas, the popular media became fixated on the state rankings that the paper listed, which Wu cautions can be misinterpreted: Though New York State ranked last on this particular list, due to demographic controls, that doesn’t indicate that New Yorkers are particularly unhappy. And by any measure, with his successful research and his piano career, Wu certainly seems to have much to be happy about.

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