July 2015

IZA DP No. 9195: Historical Analysis of National Subjective Wellbeing Using Millions of Digitized Books

extended version published in: Nature Human Behavior, 2019, 3 (12), 1271–1275

We present the first attempt to construct a long-run historical measure of subjective wellbeing using language corpora derived from millions of digitized books. While existing measures of subjective wellbeing go back to at most the 1970s, we can go back at least 200 years further using our methods. We analyse data for six countries (the USA, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain). To highlight some results, we find a positive short-run effect for GDP and life expectancy on subjective wellbeing. An increase of 1% life expectancy is equivalent to more than 5% increase in yearly GDP. One year of internal conflict costs the equivalent of a 50% drop in GDP per year in terms of subjective wellbeing. Public debt, on the other hand, has a short-run positive effect. Our estimated index of subjective wellbeing generally does not feature any positive trend, which is consistent with the Easterlin paradox, although we caution against long term analysis given the historical variation of written texts (which parallel similar issues with historical GDP statistics).