THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 41, Fall 2011

William A. McEachern, Editor


  • Happiness indices have been introduced by some countries around the world as alternative measures of economic welfare. Coming at this from another direction, Facebook tracks the mood of its users via its Gross National Happiness Index, which each day counts "positive" and "negative" words used in status updates, converts them into percentages based on all users that day, then subtracts the negative percent from the positive percent. Facebook has been following this measure since September 2007, and the daily results can be observed over time for any of 22 countries by using an amazingly flexible time-series chart at (this chart alone is worth a look). Let's focus on U.S. users. Not surprisingly, they seem happier on weekends and holidays than at midweek. In terms of the overall trend from September 2007 through August 2011, the index rose from a low in early 2008 through mid-2009, remained level for about a year, then drifted lower into August 2011. The saddest of these 1,461 days was Tuesday, September 16, 2008, the day after the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history; Lehman's collapse would help fuel the global financial crisis. A close second for saddest day was Tuesday, January 22, 2008, a day when bitter cold gripped the nation during what later would be identified as the first full month of the Great Recession. The happiest day during that four years was Thursday, December 31, 2009, the first New Year's Eve after the Great Recession ended. The second happiest day was Friday, December 31, 2010. During the two happiest days, Facebook users were heading into holiday weekends and perhaps looking ahead to a promising new year. Hope springs eternal.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics began its American Time Use Survey in 2003. The 2010 survey tracked the time use of a nationally representative sample of about 13,200 individuals 15 years of age or older. I'll focus on the 15 to 19 year olds. Despite what we hear about stressed out students, what with their over-scheduling, this group averaged 5.7 hours of leisure a day (versus 5.2 hours for the entire sample). This leisure total is net of time spent eating, sleeping, personal care, studies, work, household activities, caring for others, civic and religious activities, shopping, and more. Of the 5.7 hours, 0.7 hours was spent in sports and exercise (versus 0.3 hours for the entire sample). Of the remaining leisure, teenagers averaged 2.3 hours watching TV (versus 2.7 hours for the entire sample). Computer use for fun claimed 55 minutes (vs. 25 minutes), and "socializing and communication" (e.g., Facebook, texting), averaged 50 minutes (vs. 42 minutes). How about reading for pleasure? Only seven minutes a day (vs. 20 minutes). The teens surveyed in 2010 spent eight times more than that playing on the computer, and 20 times more watching TV. In the 2006 to 2009 surveys, the average reading-for-pleasure time for teens was eight minutes a day, with a low of seven minutes and a high of 10 minutes. From 2006 to 2010, the average for those 20 to 24 years of age was nine minutes a day, with a low of seven and a high of 11 minutes. Those 65 to 74 read five times as much. See In a story that may be related, "SAT reading scores for the Class of 2011 were the lowest on record" (Associated Press, Sept. 15, 2011).