Thursday, August 07, 2008

Drugs and US Happiness

The distribution of self reported happiness in the USA has become more equal since 1972

Thinking about this graph Ezra Klein writes a second post on it.

He writes "Reading through findings that societal happiness has slightly declined over the past thirty years, I wondered what would happen if you'd taken the various anti-depressants, anxiolytics, and assorted other psychiatric medications out of the mix. After all, they're in pretty wide use, didn't really exist in the 70s, and should have had some sort of positive impact on the nation's mood."

Oddly he seems to have forgotten the fact he stressed in his earlier post.

Update: it seems I didn't understand what he wrote. The next two paragraphs now appear to have nothing to do with Ezra Klein except as miss-understood by me.


Median happiness has remained about the same, the lower percentiles of the distribution have improved. Most people, even in the USA, don't take anti-depressants. People who take anti-depressants tend to be depressed (some just want the side effects like weight loss). If anti-depressants were really effective long term, one would expect exactly what one sees in the lower tail of the US happiness distribution.

The decline in happiness among the happier half has nothing to do with anti-depressents -- they aren't taking them.

Klein also reports an odd idea from commenter meh. meh thinks that the decline in Nicotine use has caused a decline in happiness. I doubt it. I think that nicotine makes you mildly happy only while your level of addiction is increasing. My sense is that stable nicotine use has zero effect on anything as habituation is complete.

I base my thoughts on personal experience. Since 1987 I have been a nicorette abuser and have immense levels of nicotine in my blood. Didn't make me happy. Since 1995 I have taken 20 mg of Prozac a day (except when I forget to take it -- it's that non-addictive. Just noticed I haven't taken it yet today (2:23 pm here)). It
changed my life.

Update: Ezra Klein came here to comment. Uhm his comment is a bit critical (as I was critical of him).

Ezra Klein has left a new comment on your post "Drugs and US Happiness The distribution of self r...":

I think you may be misinterpreting my comment: I'm interested in how much of the leavening affect at the bottom end has to do with medication. Is it half of it? 200 percent of it and happiness would have gone down without new drugs? In other words, I'm not confused by what role the drugs played, but how big of a role it was.


As Emily Lettela said: Never mind.

However, I still like the topic. The increase in the lower percentiles of the US distribution of self reported happiness is (very weak) macro evidence that the new psychopharmaceuticals actually work. This is interesting as the micro evidence is, to a very considerable extent, based on brief trials. The long term effect of an anti-depressant might be low compared to the effect after 6 weeks if the brain habituates (consider my view of nicotine). There is pretty strong evidence that sleeping pills do not help people get to sleep except when they first start using them (or compared to when they first quit).

Now the evidence in the graph I got from Klein is minimal, but, I think, international comparisons might be interesting.

3 comments:

Ezra Klein said...

I think you may be misinterpreting my comment: I'm interested in how much of the leavening affect at the bottom end has to do with medication. Is it half of it? 200 percent of it and happiness would have gone down without new drugs? In other words, I'm not confused by what role the drugs played, but how big of a role it was.

reason said...

I think you are missing something. I first heard about this study because Tyler Cowen was crowing about it. If you read the summary it is clear that the improved social status of women and blacks is the main cause of the reduced variance.

Robert said...

I'm missing practically everything as all I know about is the graph. Not to complain but a URL would have been helpful.