War’s Long Shadow on Happiness

Stereotypes about national mentalities abound, especially in the field of happiness and life satisfaction: angst-driven Germans vs. happy Mexicans; gloomy Hungarians vs. bon-vivant French. Let’s assume that their is a grain of truth in these cliches. Afterall, if one takes international comparisons of happiness, the ranking of countries is remarkably consistent. In other words, some countries always end up being the happiest, whereas others consistently are on the bottom. Why is this?
There are numerous answers and maybe we will never really know, but here I suggest an explanation rooted in the history of a nation: the collective, long-term consequences of war. That war affects individual happiness is evident. Severe, large wars can also affect the whole population, they can generate collective traumas. But do wars in the past affect happiness of today?
For that to be the case the collective memory of a war needs to be passed on from generation to generation. The obvious channel lies within the family, even if this channel is often biased, distorted or conspicuously silent. Culture and tradition are other well-known channels. Comparative literary studies have shown that the corpus of folk tales in some countries is much gloomier than that of others. Grimms’ fairy tales are famous examples, many of which had their roots in misery and war. But it is not only about fairy tales. To take another example: In Continental Europe, the memory about the tragic 30years war has been passed on over generations through novels, archival documents and public ceremonies. And it does not have to stop at the direct, explicit, conscious level. Hence it is plausible that past wars can cast a long shadow. They engrave themselves into the collective memory of a people. If so, they should also affect collective mentality and ultimately happiness of the people long after their termination.
Such a claim is obviously hard to test. And yet, there is data available on both the number and severity of past wars and on contemporary international differences in happiness. Beginning with the latter, among others the World Value Surveys (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/) collect information on the individual and aggregate levels of happiness around the world. I took the data from the Quality of Government cross-section dataset (http://www.qog.pol.gu.se/data/). It reports the share of people in the population who answer that they are very or quite happy. As for data on war, the Correlates of War project (http://www.correlatesofwar.org/) is perhaps the most famous attempt to collect information on the incidence of war over the last two centuries. In particular, the CoW data contains information on the number of interstate wars, lost and won, as well as intrastate, i.e. civil, wars.
There is no simple bivariate correlation between the number of wars of a country in the last 200 years and the average happiness of its citizens. This is not surprising as there are important contemporary determinants of happiness. Two name just one: it has been shown that wealth increases happiness (up to a point, and only to a certain degree). Another important factor is the recent past: post-communist countries still have considerably lower levels of average happiness and life satisfaction. Hence, I use a regression analysis to control for the two factors (GDP per capita and post-communist countries) to explain average happiness with the number of wars in the last two centuries.
Still there is not much of an effect. However, if we only count wars a country has lost and ignore those a country won, we do find an effect. The relationship is far from perfect. And yet the direction and the size are relevant, and the finding is statistically significant. The finding is also interesting in the sense that it really seems to depend on the kind of a mental association of wars which makes them matter. Lost wars hurt, victorious wars are much more ambivalent. For instance, it is clear that the tradition of remembrance about wars is much different in the UK as compared to Germany.
There is one more, quite important problem: not all wars are equal. It is somewhat naïve to compare, say, the 40 minutes Anglo-Zanzibar war, claimed to be the shortest war in history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Zanzibar_War) with World War II. For this reason, I use additional information on the battle deaths in each war listed in the CoW. These are absolute numbers and they are very heterogenous across countries and centuries. To make this data comparable, I divide it by the population in a country at the time. The data on population size comes from Angus Maddison’s historical statistics (http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/maddison-project/home.htm). Then I calculate the cumulative share of the population which died in battles of the wars listed in the CoW project.
The result is very error-ridden. For instance, for Germany only I counted only Prussian battle-deaths before 1870. For entities like Austria-Hungary before 1918 the data is hard to decompose. The data has hence to be taken with some caution. Yet, strong differences are noteworthy. For many countries values are practically zero, i.e. battle deaths are a small quantity in terms of population size. Even the U.S. has less than half a percentage point of population who died in combat. For other countries the cumulative share of battle deaths relative to the population are substantial: Italy or Vietnam around 2%, Russia around 5% or Germany around 8%. Paraguay has by far the highest share (up to 50%) due to its devastating war in the 19th century, the war with highest relative casualties of all time.


Let us now repeat the regression exercise with the cumulative share of battle deaths instead of the number of wars. The results are even stronger. The figure shows the partial regression plot between the cumulate share of battle deaths and average happiness. The effect is strong: an additional percentage point in cumulative battle deaths leads to a drop in average happiness by some two percentage points. We see that the model still has troubles explaining cases like Bulgaria or Poland, but the severity of past wars still seems to loom large over countries. This may explain some of the clichés talked about above. Maybe Germans or Hungarians are so gloomy because one way or the other they are still haunted by their past.



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2 responses to “War’s Long Shadow on Happiness

  1. Tóka Gábor

    Very cool. I am not at all familiar with the literature on wars and their legacies so I can’t judge how it fares in that context. But in the happiness literature there must be a fine place for this. The mechanism must be awfully difficult to reconstruct and test but I would probably focus on two things: some cumulative proportions of people brought up as orphans by a family traumatized by war/civil war/genocide for the individual level story (and here of course the holocaust would cause massive operationalization problems because mostly whole families were killed) and legacy of major wars that cannot be revered but rather brought shame etc instead as a factor transmitted via national culture. I mean lost wars sometimes become a source of pride and community cohesion (that may feed into happiness) and maybe some victorious wars help disintegrating national pride etc. and thus feed unhappiness (if we disaggregate WW2, Germany of course won many episodes yet on the slightly longer run the victories over Poland, France etc. turned into national shame). So yes, why not national pride as the intervening variable for this second part of the story?

    • Great ideas, thanks Gabor. There is indeed some micro-level literature on war traumata and happiness, also a bit across generations, but the two mechanisms sound interesting. I think there is a nascent literature on generational differences in experiences and their effects on public opinion (e.g. Communist Legacies and post-communist political participation. Grigore Pop-Eleches, Princeton University;
      Joshua Tucker, New York University; or Leonid Peisakhin’s papers), but I will have to dig deeper into that.

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