Even when correcting for income, education, race, and gender, people in states with higher public investment were still happier.

New York Public Library. Image in public domain.

It makes a lot of sense if you think about it: if things like parks or libraries aren’t funded by the state, there’s a very good chance that no one else will fund them — and these are services which can make a massive positive difference for a local community.

“Public goods are things you can’t exclude people from using — and one person using them doesn’t stop another from doing so,” said researcher Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. “They’re typically not profitable to produce in the private market, so if the government doesn’t provide them, they will either be under-provided or not at all.”

The idea that increasing public goods works to raise the standard of living seems very reasonable, particularly in a country like the US, which has a relatively low public spending percentage. What the new paper shows is that, in states which invest more in public goods, people enjoy not only increased livelihood but also increased happiness. Even when corrected for all other important factors like marital status and overall health, the correlation is still strong.

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Flavin analyzed data from the 1976-2006 General Social Survey, a representative sample for Americans, gathered and monitored at the University of Chicago. He also analyzed detailed government spending data for states from the U.S. Census Bureau for 1976-2006. Overall, funding from state public goods averaged 22% of the total state revenue over the studied period.

These findings suggest that public goods spending can have important implications for the well-being of Americans and, more broadly, can give valuable suggestions to policymakers — particularly since this doesn’t seem to be a partisan political issue.

“Compared to a lot of the other government spending, public goods tend to be less controversial between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, compared to poverty assistance or unemployment benefits, where there is definite disagreement between political parties,” Flavin said. “I think there is less political conflict over public goods spending simply because if they government doesn’t provide them, they won’t be provided at all.”

However, it should be said that this study only established a correlation between public spending and community happiness — not causation. It could be that happier citizens self-select by moving to states that spend comparatively more on public goods, or that happier citizens tend to vote policymakers that support higher spending on public goods. The cause-effect is unclear, but the association is strong.

A good example is Scandinavian countries, which consistently rank at the top of the happiest countries (Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland were found to be the 4 happiest countries in 2018), and are well known for investing heavily in public goods and services.

The study “State government public goods spending and citizens’ quality of life” was published in Social Science Research.