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.


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.)

Sociologists’ claim: interactions with others is how religion leads to greater life satisfaction

A new study in the American Sociological Review looks at why religious people have higher levels of life satisfaction. The conclusion: it is about the networks that form among people who attend services.

Here is a short description of the study:

Many studies have uncovered a link between religion and life satisfaction, but all of the research faced a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Lim said. Does religion make people happy, or do happy people become religious? And if religion is the cause of life satisfaction, what is responsible — spirituality, social contacts, or some other aspect of religion?

Lim and his colleague, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, tackled both questions with their study. In 2006, they contacted a nationally representative sample of 3,108 American adults via phone and asked them questions about their religious activities, beliefs and social networks. In 2007, they called the same group back and got 1,915 of them to answer the same batch of questions again.

The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people…

But the satisfaction couldn’t be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God’s love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.

A few thoughts based on the description of this study:

1. This would seem to support arguments within faith traditions, such as evangelicalism, about the need for religious community.

2. The study suggests these friendships form around “a sense of belonging to a moral faith community.” This sounds like Durkheim and his ideas about people coming together and forming a collective.

3. This sounds like a worthwhile study because it helps explain the causal mechanism between greater life satisfaction and religion: it is about friendships. But, this doesn’t say much about how these friendships lead to greater life satisfaction. Is it because there is someone to share one’s burdens with? Is it because these friends provide spiritual guidance?

4. Are there substitutes for this kind of boost to life satisfaction? That is, are there functionally equivalent things people could do to get the same benefits that religious people get from friendships with people who share their faith?

5. The findings were primarily about the large American religious groups: “Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants.” Would these findings hold for other groups in America? Would they hold in other countries?