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

22 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2007

See all articles by Andrew J. Oswald

Andrew J. Oswald

University of Warwick - Department of Economics; IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Nattavudh Powdthavee

University of Warwick

Date Written: March 2007

Abstract

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.

Keywords: body mass index, happiness, mental health, General Health Questionnaire, GHQ scores, BMI, well-being, obesity, BHPS, GSOEP, imitation, weight, relative income, comparisons

JEL Classification: D1, I12, I31

Suggested Citation

Oswald, Andrew J. and Powdthavee, Nattavudh, Obesity, Unhappiness, and the Challenge of Affluence: Theory and Evidence (March 2007). IZA Discussion Paper No. 2717, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=981703

Andrew J. Oswald (Contact Author)

University of Warwick - Department of Economics ( email )

Coventry CV4 7AL
United Kingdom
523510 (Phone)

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Schaumburg-Lippe-Str. 7 / 9
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

Nattavudh Powdthavee

University of Warwick ( email )

Gibbet Hill Rd.
Coventry, West Midlands CV4 8UW
United Kingdom
+44 (0)2476 528240 (Phone)

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