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Obesity, Unhappiness, and The Challenge of Affluence: Theory and Evidence

  • Oswald, Andrew J.

    ()

    (University of Warwick)

  • Powdthavee, Nattavudh

    ()

    (London School of Economics)

Is affluence a good thing? The book The Challenge of Affluence by Avner Offer (2006) argues that economic prosperity weakens self-control and undermines human well-being. Consistent with a pessimistic view, we show that psychological distress has been rising through time in modern Great Britain. Taking over-eating as an example, our data reveal that half the British population view themselves as overweight, and that happiness and mental health are worse among fatter people in both Britain and Germany. A 10-point move up in body mass index (BMI) is associated in the cross-section with a drop in psychological health of approximately 0.3 GHQ points. Comparisons also matter. For a given level of BMI, we find that people who are educated or who have high income are more likely to view themselves as overweight. We discuss problems of inference and argue that longitudinal data on BMI are needed. We suggest a theory of imitation – where utility depends on relative weight – in which there can be obesity spirals after only small drops in the price of food.

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Paper provided by Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in its series IZA Discussion Papers with number 2717.

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Length: 22 pages
Date of creation: Mar 2007
Date of revision:
Publication status: published in: Economic Journal, 2007, 117 (521), F441-F459
Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp2717
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  2. Ed Hopkins & Tatiana Kornienko, 2006. "Methods of Social Comparison in Games of Status," Levine's Bibliography 122247000000001183, UCLA Department of Economics.
  3. Gardner, Jonathan & Oswald, Andrew J., 2006. "Money and Mental Wellbeing : A Longitudinal Study of Medium-Sized Lottery Wins," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 754, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
  4. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2004. "Well-being over time in Britain and the USA," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(7-8), pages 1359-1386, July.
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  8. James Banks & Michael Marmot & Zoe Oldfield & James P. Smith, 2009. "The SES Health Gradient on Both Sides of the Atlantic," NBER Chapters, in: Developments in the Economics of Aging, pages 359-406 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  12. Clark, Andrew E. & Oswald, Andrew J., 1994. "Satisfaction and comparison income," CEPREMAP Working Papers (Couverture Orange) 9408, CEPREMAP.
  13. Bruno S. Frey & Alois Stutzer, . "Happiness, Economy and Institutions," IEW - Working Papers 015, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  14. Powdthavee, Nattavudh, 2003. "Unhappiness and Crime : Evidence from South Africa," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 685, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
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  19. Luttmer, Erzo F. P., 2004. "Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being," Working Paper Series rwp04-029, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
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  21. Winkelmann, Liliana & Winkelmann, Rainer, 1998. "Why Are the Unemployed So Unhappy? Evidence from Panel Data," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 65(257), pages 1-15, February.
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  23. Stevenson, Betsey & Wolfers, Justin, 2003. "Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress," Research Papers 1828, Stanford University, Graduate School of Business.
  24. Jonathan Gardner & Andrew J. Oswald, 2006. "Do divorcing couples become happier by breaking up?," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, Royal Statistical Society, vol. 169(2), pages 319-336.
  25. Jay Bhattacharya & M. Kate Bundorf, 2005. "The Incidence of the Healthcare Costs of Obesity," NBER Working Papers 11303, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  26. Gruber, Jonathan & Frakes, Michael, 2006. "Does falling smoking lead to rising obesity?," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 25(2), pages 183-197, March.
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  29. Oswald, Andrew J. & Powdthavee, Nattavudh, 2006. "Does Happiness Adapt? A Longitudinal Study of Disability with Implications for Economists and Judges," IZA Discussion Papers 2208, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  30. Clark, Andrew E & Oswald, Andrew J, 1994. "Unhappiness and Unemployment," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 104(424), pages 648-59, May.
  31. Robert J. MacCulloch & Rafael Di Tella & Andrew J. Oswald, 2001. "Preferences over Inflation and Unemployment: Evidence from Surveys of Happiness," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(1), pages 335-341, March.
  32. Richard V. Burkhauser & John Cawley, 2004. "Obesity, Disability, and Movement Onto the Disability Insurance Rolls," Working Papers wp089, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
  33. Nattavudh Powdthavee, 2003. "Are there Regional Variations in the Psychological Cost of Unemployment in South Africa?," Labor and Demography 0310006, EconWPA, revised 28 Oct 2003.
  34. Judith Cornelisse-Vermaat & Gerrit Antonides & Johan Ophem & Henriette Brink, 2006. "Body Mass Index, Perceived Health, and Happiness: Their Determinants and Structural Relationships," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 79(1), pages 143-158, October.
  35. Clark, Andrew E. & Oswald, Andrew J., 1998. "Comparison-concave utility and following behaviour in social and economic settings," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(1), pages 133-155, October.
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  37. Brown, Gordon D. A. & Gardner, Jonathan & Oswald, Andrew J. & Qian, Jing, 2005. "Does Wage Rank Affect Employees' Wellbeing?," IZA Discussion Papers 1505, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
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