US government (and “statistical bureaucracy”) looking to measure well-being

The federal government is looking into ways to measure well-being as a new indicator of social life:

Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of “subjective well-being.” If successful, these could become official statistics.

But as the United States ventures into the squishy realm of feelings, statisticians will first have to define happiness and then how to measure it. Neither is a trivial matter. There is even some doubt whether people, when polled, can accurately say whether they are happy…

The panel, organized by the nonprofit National Academies, has already met with two of the key figures in the U.S. statistical bureaucracy: Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Steve Landefeld, the director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the federal agency that puts out the gross domestic product figures.

According to proponents, a measure of happiness could help assess the success or failure of a range of government policies. It could gauge the virtues of a health benefit or establish whether education has more value than simply higher incomes. It might also detect extremes of inequality or imbalances in how people divide their time between work and leisure.

I’m not sure why there is opposition to this. There are plenty of social scientists who study this topic and have developed established measures of “happiness.” I’ve written on this topic a number of times looking at the effect of income on happiness, how religion leads to greater life satisfaction through interaction with others, and an argument that we need to study flourishing rather than happiness. As I’ve noted before, measuring happiness requires looking at both short- and long-term satisfaction. This panel may have to work on applying these measures onto a national scale but they are not creating a whole new field of study.

The cost issue may be driven more by the current budget troubles than anything else. If you are studying the effectiveness of programs and policies, why not include a measure of well-being? We tend to measure many things in terms of economics and pragmatic factors alone. Overall, it could make government statistics more holistic. A measure of well-being doesn’t have to be the only number that matters in the future but it can play an important role.

Three other thoughts:

1. The panel might consider avoiding the term “happiness” as this seems too subjective to a lot of people. In popular usage, the emotion is considered to be ephemeral. Instead, stick with well-being or life satisfaction.

2. Tying this panel to the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence seems silly. This doesn’t provide evidence for or against this sort of panel.

3. I’m very amused at the mention of a “statistical bureaucracy.” This might be the worst nightmare for some people: statistics plus government. Just a reminder: one member of the bureaucracy, Robert Graves at the Census Bureau, is a sociologist with a lot of experience with surveys.


Breaking the social norm of the 40 hour work week

The New Economics Foundation suggests we work 40 hour weeks because that is the prevailing social norm, not because it is necessary:

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a “normal” 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and mostly just relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).

The NEF argues we need to achieve truly happy lives, we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock ticking in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to feeding consumerism).

This reminds me of past visions where modern conveniences, like new appliances or flying cars or a a perpetually robust economy, would reduce the number of hours people would have to spend on “menial” tasks like housework and working. Alas, many of these things have not happened.

This group does raise an interesting issue: there are ideological reasons for sticking to 40 hours. This foundation suggests that working less would lead to more fulfilling lives full of relationships and time to pursue our true interests. I wonder how many Americans would really be willing to work less in exchange for less money or discretionary income.

I wonder if a movement toward this direction would require a respected company to make this change.

Study human flourishing rather than happiness

A well-known psychologist suggests we should study human flourishing rather than just happiness:

In theory, life satisfaction might include the various elements of well-being. But in practice, Dr. Seligman says, people’s answers to that question are largely — more than 70 percent — determined by how they’re feeling at the moment of the survey, not how they judge their lives over all.

“Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful moods, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology,” he writes in “Flourish.” By that standard, he notes, a government could improve its numbers just by handing out the kind of euphoriant drugs that Aldous Huxley described in “Brave New World.”

So what should be measured instead? The best gauge so far of flourishing, Dr. Seligman says, comes from a study of 23 European countries by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of the University of Cambridge. Besides asking respondents about their moods, the researchers asked about their relationships with others and their sense that they were accomplishing something worthwhile.

Denmark and Switzerland ranked highest in Europe, with more than a quarter of their citizens meeting the definition of flourishing. Near the bottom, with fewer than 10 percent flourishing, were France, Hungary, Portugal and Russia.

Studiers of happiness tend to ask about two areas: immediate happiness and longer-term happiness, typically referred to as “life satisfaction.” But Seligman is suggesting that these questions about satisfaction don’t really move beyond the immediate mood of the respondent. Additionally, the questions need to be adjusted to account for relationships and whether the respondent feels a sense of accomplishment in life.

It is interesting to see some of the cross-country comparisons. How might national or smaller cultures influence how individuals feel about life satisfaction? In the long run, do people actually have to be accomplishing something satisfying or is it more about perceptions? Can living a decent life in the American suburbs be ultimately satisfying for Americans or do they just think that it should be?

I wonder how these findings line up with earlier findings that religion leads to higher levels of life satisfaction.

(I also wonder if people think that the language of “flourishing” seems archaic or overly humanistic.)

Wellbeing among American cities

Gallup surveyed 188 metropolitan areas in the United States in 2010 and then ranked the cities according to their Well-Being Index. Here is the top 5:

1. Boulder, Colorado

2. Lincoln, Nebraska

3. Fort Collins-Loveland, Colorado

4. Provo-Orem, Utah

5. Honolulu, Hawaii

Here is some information on how the index was calculated:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and access to basic necessities. The overall score and each of the six sub-index scores are calculated on a scale from 0 to 100, where a score of 100 represents the ideal. Gallup and Healthways have been tracking these measures daily since January 2008.

In terms of analysis of these findings, Richard Florida has some thoughts. My guess is that Florida will tie these findings to own ideas about the creative class, a group that tends to live in cities that are college towns, have younger populations, higher level of innovation, and more cultural opportunities.

(A side note: I’m not sure who came up with the headline for Florida’s thoughts but calling these “America’s New Happiest Cities” may not exactly be the same things as measuring “well-being.” The Gallup index goes beyond “life evaluation” and “emotional health” to include other factors like physical health and workplace environment.)

Psychology Today: we are more unhappy even as we have attained the American Dream in the suburbs

The latest issue of Psychology Today (March/April 2011, not yet available online) features a story about unhappiness and the American Dream. One researcher of economics and happiness says, “The U.S.A. has, in aggregate, apparently become more miserable over the last quarter of a century.” The basic premise is this: we have gained what the American Dream promised, families, home ownership, levels of luxury, and yet we are more unhappy than ever. Why is this the case?

The article goes on to cite a number of problems: having more public activities moved inside the home and limited contact with the broader communities (with home churches, homeschooling, and working from home cited as examples); an overemphasis on children who end up dominating the lives of their parents; moving to the suburbs; and we unrealistically dream of fulfillment that is said to come with marriage, having children, and growing older.

I’ll quickly tackle the suburbs issue here. The bulk of this section cites the 2000 book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, a classic New Urbanist text. In short, the New Urbanists argue that suburban neighborhoods emphasize individualism and simply bigger homes, not community, leading to an impoverished public realm. Through the redesign of neighborhoods, such as including porches on the front of houses, moving garages to back alleys, and having a coherent sense of architecture across buildings, community life can be encouraged. The author of this article suggests there is a “disconnect between ‘suburban expectation…and the blighted reality of sprawl.”

This is not a new argument about the suburbs: indeed, critics were saying similar things back in the 1920s and 1950s during the early waves of American suburbanization. This article also trades in typical arguments: “And those parents who live in a cul-de-sac just a highway exit or two from a strip mall might be the first to admit they’re experiencing an American dream that may be less Norman Rockwell than Revolutionary Road.” One question could be raised about this section on suburbs: is it the suburbs themselves that are causing the problem (the actual physical design and layout) or the expectations that come with them? Since the early 1900s, Americans have moved to the suburbs partly to avoid the city. While the suburban lifestyle certainly has faults, would Americans choose to leave the suburbs and move elsewhere? New Urbanists offer an interesting alternative: maintaining single-family home but having denser suburbs which would hopefully have richer community interaction. Interestingly, this article does not call for people to leave the suburbs but perhaps to adjust their expectations about what the suburbs can actually offer.

More broadly, the article sets this up as an issue of out-sized expectations. The American Dream offers much but also seems to leave people wanting more and more. How about a slightly different question: is the end goal of adult life happiness and/or satisfaction? One way to deal with the issue of the American Dream would be to scale back our expectations so we are more satisfied with what we have. Another way to deal with the issue is to wonder if pleasure (measured as happiness or satisfaction) is the ultimate goal in life.

(A note about Psychology Today: I am not a regular reader so my observation may be silly or obvious. But this article, and a few others I flipped through, were quite “pop” and short on academic analysis.)

Another composite measure: “the happiest person in America”

Happiness studies are a cottage industry unto themselves (see related posts here, here, and here for several examples) as are composite measures that tells us things like the mean population center of the United States or the world’s most typical face. Here is a new measure that gives us some information about the happiest person in America:

The New York Times asked Gallup to come up with a statistical composite for the happiest person in America, based on the characteristics that most closely correlated with happiness in 2010. Men, for example, tend to be happier than women, older people are happier than middle-aged people, and so on.

Gallup’s answer: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year.

This may make for an interesting news story but I’m not sure it really tells us much. Composite measures like this take different pieces of information, such as differences in happiness by gender, age, race, income, and more, and then try to attach them to a “typical” person. Is it more helpful to see a “typical” person or to have a series of graphs that show the differing levels of average happiness by various demographic characteristics? Personally, I think it would be more helpful to have the series of graphs or tables – which are also included with this story (just need to click on the tables/maps on the left side).

Of course, this article goes a step farther by trying to actually to track down someone who fits this profile. And this N of 1 who says he is “a very happy person” shows or proves what exactly?

How to measure happiness (“prosperity”) across countries

Here is a topic just perfect for a Research Methods class discussion about conceptualization and operationalization: how to measure happiness across countries. Here is a quick summary of how the Legatum Institute measured this and found that Norway is the happiest country in the world:

With this in mind, five years ago researchers at the Legatum Institute, a London-based nonpartisan think tank, set out to rank the happiest countries in the world. But because “happy” carries too much of a touchy-feely connotation, they call it “prosperity.”

Legatum recently completed its 2010 Prosperity Index, which ranks 110 countries, covering 90% of the world’s population.

To build its index Legatum gathers upward of a dozen international surveys done by the likes of the Gallup polling group, the Heritage Foundation and the World Economic Forum. Each country is ranked on 89 variables sorted into eight subsections: economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom and social capital.

The core conceit: Prosperity is complex; achieving it relies on a confluence of factors that build on each other in a virtuous circle.

Ultimately how happy you are depends on how happy you’ve been. If you’re already rich, like Scandinavia, then more freedom, security and health would add the most to happiness. For the likes of China and India (ranked 88th), it’s more a case of “show me the money.” What they want most of all? The opportunity to prove to themselves that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Some quick thoughts on this:

1. This is a lot of dimensions and indicators to consider: 89 measures, 8 subcategories.

2. The change from “happiness” to “prosperity” is an interesting one. Happiness is indeed a fuzzy term. But prosperity often refers to material wealth in terms of income or buying power. This prosperity defined more broadly: material wealth plus freedoms plus level of services plus social interactions. The Legatum Website suggests the Index is “the world’s only global assessment of wealth and well-being.”

3. I would be curious to know how comparable the data is across countries and across the organizations that form and ask these survey questions.

4. In this complexity, it is interesting to note that prosperity means different things to countries in different stages.

5. Even with all of these measures, which measures are used and how this Institute weights these particular factors would matter for the outcome. For example, the story at Forbes suggests that improving a nation’s entrepreneurial culture could make a big difference in these rankings. And the United States is ranked #1 in health care because “$5,500 a year in per-capita health spending has resulted in excellent vaccination rates, water quality and sanitation.” The Legatum Institute itself seems to put a big emphasis on business.

6. How come so many of these lists come from Forbes? Beyond the answer that Yahoo has a deal with Forbes for content, this is an interesting way to drive web traffic: top ten lists that catch people’s attention. How useful these sorts of lists are is debatable but they are often interesting and quickly summarize complex areas of life.

Making gratitude part of the socialization process

A sociologist from UC-Berkeley suggests that children can be taught gratitude from a young age:

Most of us are actually born feeling entitled to our parents’ care. That means that if we don’t teach kids gratitude and practice it with them, they grow up feeling entitled, and entitlement does not lead to happiness. On the contrary, it leads to feelings of disappointment and frustration. In contrast, gratitude makes us happy and satisfied with our lives…

Studies of adults and college students show positive outcomes from consciously practicing gratitude. My own experience with children has been that they become kinder, more appreciative, more enthusiastic and just generally happier.

I wonder if there is broad-level data to support her claims that children who have more gratitude are happier. One could do a study of grateful adults and try to trace back where exactly they think (and where they actually did) develop this attitude. Could we also figure out why some children develop gratitude and others do not?

Also, these claims about gratitude leading to happiness sounds more like contentment rather than happiness. If we measured happiness on two levels, immediate happiness and longer-term satisfaction, gratitude would seem to lead to more longer-term satisfaction.

Happy employees = better workers

Forbes has developed a list of the 10 companies in the United States that have the happiest employees. This happiness is not just a good thing for the personal well-being of the employees – it eventually helps improve the company’s quality and bottom line:

Studies show that positive employees outperform negative employees in terms of productivity, sales, energy levels, turnover rates and healthcare costs. According to Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” optimistic sales people outperform their pessimistic counterparts by up to 37%. In fact, the benefits can be seen across industries and job functions. Doctors with a positive mindset are 50% more accurate when making diagnoses than those that are negative.

I’ve seen articles/studies like this before. If this is a consistent finding, why don’t more companies make this a priority? It might take some extra money and convincing up front, but if the payoff is harder-working yet more relaxed employees, who wouldn’t want that?

More on the study of happiness: the role of priorities

Measuring happiness is a small industry among researchers. A new study suggests another important factor: the priorities that people set for their life affects long-term happiness.

Most of us have thought, ‘If only I could win the lottery, then I’d be happy forever.’ But according to one of the first studies to look at long-term happiness, major life events, like a sudden cash windfall, are not what make us happy, rather, it’s the priorities we set in life.

“The main thing that’s surprising about these results is that it challenges this whole field,” said lead author Melbourne University sociologist Bruce Headey. “This study goes against the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed.” The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous studies suggest that happiness is predetermined by genetics and early upbringing, and that we eventually revert back to the same level of happiness regardless of changes in our lives. Looking at data from about 60,000 Germans for up to 25 years, however, Headey found that the more people decided to prioritize goals such as good relationships and good health, the happier they were, regardless of major life events.

While there are some critiques of this study (for example, it measures long-term happiness rather than daily satisfaction), it suggests again that the topic of happiness is a complex one to research with many possible factors influencing outcomes.

So should people set easier-to-reach priorities to be happy? What happens to people who set good priorities but aren’t able to reach them?

This also seems to be an interesting dataset with 60,000 people being tracked over the last two and a half decades.

(I’m also curious about the lead author saying that the study challenges “the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed.”)