Undercover Economist

Does hosting the Olympics make us happier?

The Rio Olympics close this weekend. Have they been worth it? Financially, surely not — as I wrote in June, host cities tend to pay handsomely for the privilege of providing the Olympic Games, and receive limited benefits in terms of infrastructure and reputation.

But not every expenditure needs to turn a profit. Many of us have just returned from our holidays, without any concern about whether they were financially rewarding. If they were relaxing, engaging or fun, that ought to be enough. Perhaps Rio could justify the expense of hosting the Games in a similar way.

It is not such a strange idea; an opinion poll conducted for The Guardian in the closing days of the London Olympics found that a clear majority of Britons felt that the Games had been “well worth” the price tag. But did the respondents really comprehend what the price tag implied? (It was around £150 per British resident.) And would they have felt differently had the question been asked a few months later?

In itself, that’s not much of a test because people might be having a good time anyway: the Games are held at the height of summer, when the sun tends to shine and people are on holiday. So the researchers tried to adjust statistically for factors such as the weather, which is known to have a large effect on people’s answers to questions about their wellbeing.

An aside: happiness researchers have long known that a bit of rain is enough not only to dampen your mood but also to trigger a gloomy re-evaluation of your entire path in life. A bit of sunshine makes everything better. This basic truth about the ephemerality of our emotions is all too easy to forget.

As well as adjusting for the weather and other factors, the happiness researchers made some important comparisons. They compared the feelings of Londoners with those of the residents of two other big European cities, Berlin and Paris. Berlin might be thought of as a neutral observer, having not bid to host an Olympics since the 1990s. Parisians might compare themselves with Londoners more sharply; having lost out to London for the 2012 Olympics and to Beijing four years earlier, Parisians could be forgiven for being sore losers — or perhaps relieved to have been spared the hassle. And the researchers first approached their survey subjects in summer 2011, repeated the survey with the same people in summer 2012, and again in 2013.

Gratifying as it would be to report an astonishing and counterintuitive result, the central finding of the paper is much as one might expect: Londoners really enjoyed hosting the Olympics but the buzz did not last long. During the Games — relative to Berlin and Paris, and also relative to the same time period in 2011 and 2013 — Londoners felt more satisfied with their lives, although also more anxious. After the Games, the feelings of life satisfaction ebbed away, and Londoners became more likely to feel that their own day-to-day activities were less worthwhile.

This makes sense: Londoners felt proud of hosting a successful Games, a little nervous that something might go wrong on or off the track, and were eventually left contemplating their own navels, buried all too deeply in folds of flab. In short, the Olympics were not much different to any of the other ways one can party and then nurse a hangover.

The findings are more broadly consistent with the developing science of happynomics, which has tended to produce insights that are interesting but often less than astonishing: money tends to buy happiness but good health and good relationships matter more; unemployment is a miserable experience; people do not like commuting but they enjoy having lunch and having sex.

Nevertheless, the field has promise. Consider the provision of goods such as light-rail systems or community playgrounds. A free-market system isn’t well suited to supplying such goods; but if left to governments, it’s hard to have much confidence that public money is being wisely spent. Of course people like it when their children can play safely, and they like brief and reliable commutes — but how much do they like them? Careful surveys of wellbeing are an important tool in figuring out the wisest way to spend public money.

Some philosophers tell us that nothing in life is valuable unless it adds to the sum of human happiness. Perhaps, and perhaps not. But some projects cannot be evaluated as good or bad unless we ask, carefully, whether they have made us happier. The Olympic Games are only the most prominent example.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times.

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