Today we learned that the economy grew at about 0.6% in the first quarter of 2008. About a century ago, policy makers decided that the national economy mattered and began the official measures of things like unemployment, inflation, and growth. This did not just happen. It took concerted effort - and swept up corporations, businesses, and even households who all suddenly needed to report incomes.
We measure the economy because we strongly suspect that it's tied to general levels of contentment. And it is, up to a point. Studies of happiness indicate that after about $20,000 per person, income increases happiness only to the extent that it increases one's relative status. Money matters because happiness matters and money influences happiness. (Not only is it difficult to stay happy without money, it is difficult to stay alive.)
All that to say, it is easy to imagine a parallel universe where today's news might have been reported somewhat differently. It might be reported as follows.
Today, the government announced that an additional 2.7 million Americans have lost their sense of meaning, but happiness among teenagers has spiked to an all time high, suggesting a general rise in meaningless behavior.
Reported levels of happiness rose by .6%, but psychologist Arnold Bernowitz at on-line happiness analysis firm eUdemonia says that this is no cause for happiness. "This is a time when winter is over, NBA and NHL playoffs are in full swing, MLB has begun, and the warm weather means that men are more likely to see cleavage," Bernowitz reported. "Usually, the seasonal upswing in happiness among males between 16 and 46 is enough to push happiness levels upwards by 5 points. The fact that it barely budged could have to do with a number of factors: election fatigue, the high price of gas and Barack Obama's reminder to middle-class Americans that they are bitter. By the time that summer turns from balmy to sweaty, we are likely to see happiness levels drop to below that of the late 1970s. I'm sad to say that things don't look so good for happiness."
Over at eCstacy Inc., analyst Digby Sauerbane seemed to corroborate this view. "Americans continue to find joy in shallow and ultimately futile things like love and celebrity gossip. But these are fragile things. All it takes is just one phone call from her, as she stands in an airport in Miami, about to leave the continent with Mario, and your happiness dissolves like cotton candy left out in the rain." As if to underscore his point, Digby himself burst into tears.
On the ground reporting uncovered a different mood. Terence Lewis, a 15 year old high school student from Ames Iowa, said that his own happiness had risen by at least 0.6% in just the last hour. Asked to explain why, he scratched his head and said, "Well, the spaghetti in the cafeteria didn't totally suck today."
President Bush's happiness secretary said that the new happiness stimulus package would likely avert widespread anomie. The stimulus package includes volunteering government bureaucrats to work school carnivals (crowds seem quite pleased when IRS officials work the dunk booth) and said that OSHA officials will be offering massages each day between 2 and 4. "We expect people to be giddy by fall," he promised, reiterating Bush's campaign promise that all Americans would share his general sense of clueless well being by the end of his term, captured in his inexplicably popular campaign motto: "giddy up!" If happiness levels remain on their current downward course, the happiness secretary continued, the administration will again consider temporarily lifting bans against glue sniffing, at least just before this fall's election.