Monthly Archives: October 2010

Summary of recent happiness research [UPDATED 6/1/2012]

We’ve reported on some happiness and subjective wellbeing research earlier.  [See also this post and this], including this post on how the UK government is starting to track happiness with a goal of increasing national well-being.

John Helliwell, emeritus professor of economics at UBC and co-director of a CIFAR panel looking into Social Interactions, Identity and Wellbeing, was at Harvard yesterday summarizing his and others’ recent research on happiness research, with special attention to the social context of well-being.

John is a relentlessly upbeat and positive person, messianic in his message, but also a hard-nosed social scientist.  [With regard to happiness, it’s reminiscent of the “When Harry Met Sally” scene, where another dinner seeing Meg Ryan in ecstasy says “I’ll have what she’s having.”  Only in John’s case, unlike Meg Ryan’s, his happiness is heart-felt.] He had the group singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” and noted after the group sing that research shows that doing things with others, especially making music, is great for increasing happiness, as any choral group member can affirm.

He observed that the amount of data and experimentation regarding happiness research is in its infancy but suspects that the three major points about happiness that will ultimately emerge are:

1. The positive trumps the negative.  So much of our society is built around the negative: treating the sick rather than preventing sickness, enacting laws to deal with failures, imprisoning transgressors,…  But Helliwell thinks we haven’t focused enough on “wellness” studies, observing what ensures that things actually work and make people happy.  How does the positive trump the negative? For example, autobiographies of nuns in their 20s were parsed for emotional content and positive emotional content was found to be predictive of longevity.  Similarly, mid-life members of the American Psychological Association, whose most important research finding represented something positive rather than negative, also lived longer, controlling for other likely factors.

2. Community trumps materialism.  Partly because of advertising and economics, we chase materialism, thinking that a larger house or higher salary will bring us happiness, and in the process live somewhere necessitating a longer commute, less sleep, and less time spent in community.  In these Faustian bargains, we wind up less happy rather than more so. Helliwell and Huang have found that a 1% improvement in a worker’s relationship with the boss improves happiness as much as a 30% increase in salary.  Helliwell noted an experiment that showed that even the act of rowing together improved happiness.

John noted that he is working with Ed Diener, the CDC, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on an effort to get clinicians to ask community-connectedness and wellbeing questions as part of intake exams by physicians.

3. Generosity trumps selfishness.  People who give away more of their wealth, regardless of income, feel happier than those who give away less.  Similarly, those who did favors for others in the last year felt happier than those who received favors in the last year. The largest happiness effect is seen when people do things for someone together with other people.

Some other observations of Helliwell:

Negative role of media in this process: 2% of Canadians had actually been a victim of crime in the last year but 20+% expected to be in the next 12 months.  Similarly, 24% of Toronto residents thought that a stranger would return a lost wallet, when in reality, an experiment showed that 80% did.  Because we’re less connected with others, we rely much more on the media and the media is largely selling negative news.

Role of income: Worldwide, there is a decent correlation between levels of happiness and levels of income.

Map of World Happiness – Adrian White, Leicester; happier places in darker red

But the fact that income and happiness appear related is NOT because the relationship between income and happiness is all that strong, but because the levels of income between say Africa and the US are so different.  Many other factors are greater predictors of happiness, like trust of others, social connections, lack of corruption, sense of freedom, religiosity, enough money for food, and social support networks.  It is only because these stronger predictors are not higher in say Africa than the US that income looks to be strongly influential.

If one compares say provinces of Canada against each other (Helliwell is Canadian, hence all the Canadian references), income levels do not explain which provinces are happier.  The happiness differences are much more about community connection and involvement.  The wealthiest provinces (like Ontario where Toronto is or BC where Vancouver is) are the least happy, and some of the poorer provinces like the Maritimes (NE of Maine) are the most happy.  While the differences in happiness are not huge between say the Maritimes and BC, it would take a 150% increase in salary to produce the same increase in happiness.  Helliwell says the answer is not a question of people from Toronto moving to St. John’s (Newfoundland, Canada), but learning and copying the activities and actions that make folks in St. John’s happy.  In fact just having the Toronto residents move to St. John’s is likely to make everyone less happy.

[Helliwell noted that there is one study comparing levels of happiness across US States by Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu, but Helliwell expressed some skepticism in the happiness data they used. The study found high levels of happiness in Louisiana and low levels of happiness in NY, Connecticut and NJ.]

Helliwell said that work is still being done on the relationship between income and happiness.  At a national level, with World Values Survey data, he and Putnam found that around the median level of OECD (developed) countries, income stopped having much of an effect on increasing happiness.  Some other more recent data (Gallup World Poll) suggests that a log-linear relationship of income to happiness continues with no declining returns to income.  Helliwell noted that Deaton and Kahneman found declines in affective (emotional) subjective wellbeing after an intermediate level of income in these same Gallup data, but no decreasing returns to income in cognitive life satisfaction.  Helliwell also noted that raising income of some within a county is not a productive strategy for increasing income since those whose income is raised are happier but others are less happy, in other words it is zero-sum.  In contrast, if you are more socially connected into one’s community, both you and your community members are happier, even if they are not socially connected (positive externalities).

In world rankings of happiness, Denmark is #1.  Canada is higher in happiness than the US (even with lower per capita income) mainly because of the lower perceived levels of government corruption in Canada.

Helliwell believes that a participatory process is key to happiness.  Alex Haslam, a social psychologist, has done interesting experiments here.  In one experiment, an eldercare facility had a “happy floor” and an “unhappy floor” (for reasons they couldn’t determine).  They were moving into a new facility and had the “happy floor” get a professionally designed new environment.  The “unhappy floor” was assigned to work together to design their own new floor.  While professionals scoffed at the design that the “unhappy floor” came up with, in the new facility, the “unhappy floor” became happier in the new facility than any other floor. (Haslam and colleagues call this collective self-realization.) In a second experiment, they randomly assigned some workers to get a first-rate professionally designed cubicle, some to get an average professionally-designed cubicle, and some to design their own cubicle within a given budget.  While the professionals similarly scoffed at the self-designed cubicles, the workers in these cubicles were far happier than either of the other two groups.  Helliwell thinks that the biggest gains would be workers collectively designing the public spaces at the workplace.

Another experiment with a Singapore prison (called “Captains of Lives and Yellow Ribbon Project”) converted it from being a place of punishment to a place to reintegrate people back into society:  they held cooking competitions with residents from the community, jogging races together, etc.  They found that recidivism rates (re-entry of prisoners back into prison once released) declined dramatically to 25% and that staff retention in the prison rose (since the staff had completely redesigned roles).

Helliwell believes that the art of community connectedness is inherently learnable.  He notes that it does take an unusual combination of empathy and nerve (since by suggesting to someone that they attend a block party or do something you run the risk of being rejected).    He said this spirit of engagement is infectious.  He noted that he gave his talk in the Maritime provinces and asked someone from St. John’s whether other St. John’s residents ever flipped him the bird when driving; the person replied, “No.  If someone gives us the finger, they must be from out of town.”  Helliwell commented that two people giving each other the finger in rush-hour traffic both go home less happy (a negative externality) whereas two people waving to each other in traffic both go home happier.

- With regard to immigration, he noted that immigration challenges community levels of happiness since it is harder for immigrants to get involved and be connected (since they have severed many friendships and community ties through their migration, and since they may have language issues and severe time constraints to getting involved if holding down multiple jobs).  He thinks the answer is multiculturalism and pointed to the work of Irene Bloemraad.  He thinks that rather than artificially positing that bonding social capital (the ties of immigrants to each other) and bridging social capital (the ties of immigrants to natives) are zero-sum, that instead the happiest immigrants have significant levels of both bonding and bridging social ties.  [In other work we have done, it appears that the bonding ties often precede the bridging ties and it is not until immigrants feel that they have their own bonding support networks that they feel comfortable reaching out.]

Our inability to learn from the experiences of others.  Heliwell was asked about research by Dan Gilbert; Gilbert found in experiments with Harvard students, that new students continued to take paths that gave them greater choice (thinking it would bring them greater happiness) even when presented with data from prior cohorts of Harvard students indicating that greater choice brought them less happiness.  In other words, they couldn’t learn from others’ experiences about how to achieve happiness.  Helliwell described an experiment by Dan Ariely and others in priming:  most people cheat slightly in their self-scoring of tests, but students who were asked to recall as many of the Ten Commandments as they could before scoring their tests, scored themselves accurately.  Even if we can’t get people to change their erroneous thought processes (e.g. more choice = more happiness), through priming Helliwell believes that we may be able to change behavior.

- He was asked whether parents are the least happy group and what the impact of children is on happiness.  Helliwell said it is hard to ferret out.  Most people exhibit a U-shaped lifecycle for happiness:  they are happiest in their youth and retirement and less happy in middle age.  The shape of the curve may depend a lot on governmental policy — how much they support people in their elder years.  Child rearing typically occurs when people are less happy anyway, but he thinks it is not children that are bringing them unhappiness, but the competition and conflict people in those years feel between their roles (work, parenting, relationships, homeowning, etc.).  He noted that the loss of a child brings extreme depression (suggesting how much children are valued), and while he said he has not seen great data on this, he suspects that children and grandchildren bring great happiness in retirement years.

- Helliwell also asserted that several “set point” theorists had abandoned their claims in the face of better data.  The “set point” theorists have argued that everyone has some baseline level of happiness (some are relatively happy, some unhappy) and that good or bad events (winning a lottery, losing a leg) momentarily dislodge a person from their set point but they return to their baseline level of happiness over a period of months or years.  Helliwell says that the data do not support this notion that we adapt to everything.  [See also Andrew Oswald’s work in 2007 on lottery winners and interview with Sharon Begley.]

He closed by suggesting that we should treat each elevator ride as a place for experimentation rather than a brief prison sentence.

[Good summary post on the Atlantic by Derek Thompson based on analysis by the New Economics Foundation of 10 things economics can tell us about happiness.  Things associated with higher happiness:  being wealthy (but only to a point); higher public spending; going from part-time to full-time work; and self-employment. Things associated with lower happiness: income inequality; inflation; unemployment; credit card debt; working more hours (if already working full-time); and longer commutes.]

Impact of early voting

Early voting turnout as % of votes cast; Source: http://elections.gmu.edu/CPS_2008.html

Citizens voting before Election day continues to increase as the above graph shows from Current Population Survey data.  [The CPS didn’t ask about early voting in the early 1980s.]

Early voting is lower in the off-presidential years, but party experts speculate that a third or more of voters could vote early in the 2010 election, as high or higher than the 2008 presidential election.

“This year, the District and 32 states, including Maryland, allow some form of early voting….Increasingly, states are making it easier for people to vote early, allowing “no excuse” mail-in ballots and automatically sending ballots to voters who voted by mail in the past…. In some states that make early voting especially easy – such as Nevada, where voting booths can be found in health clubs, libraries, supermarkets and shopping malls – it could be much higher. In the last election, 60 percent of Nevadans voted early.” (Washington Post, “Democrats hope early voters will give them an edge“, 10/20/10)  [For a graphic of which states allow voting when, see the Early Voting Center.]

For sure this changes election strategy, pushing candidates not to hold as much of their advertising until the final days of the campaign, to reconsider their approach about last minute negative campaigning, and to invest more resources up front in a GOTEV (get out the early vote) operation.  And in some states, voters may be locking in their votes before they even hear candidates debate, undermining some of the deliberation in our electoral process.

The Post’s headline focuses on the hope for Democrats but signs seem more mixed.  For sure Democrats are trying to rebuild the grassroots machine that helped lift Obama to victory in 2008.  In some states, like Iowa, early voting turnout is up both among Democrats and GOP in 2010.

Democrats hope early voting will change the tide in Senate races in Nevada, Colorado and Washington.   But Politico reports that “In [Nevada’s] Reno’s Washoe County and Las Vegas’ Clark County, Republican turnout was disproportionately high over the first three voting days, according to local election officials. The two counties together make up 86 percent of the state’s voter population.”

Republicans also seem to be early voters in North Carolina. For example, the “largest group of early voters in North Carolina is made up of white Republican men, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina, a campaign watchdog group.” Even though “[d]uring the 2008 Democratic sweep, black Democratic women led all groups during the 17 days of early voting.”

Michael McDonald, voting guru at GMU, summarizes the state of play as “This is the big test election to see if voter mobilization really has an effect on turnout….And at least according to the very earliest early-voting numbers, people who thought the Democrats were going to roll over and play dead, that’s not what’s happening.”

Stay tuned…

Good interviews with Putnam/Campbell about religion in America

Two interesting interviews with American Grace co-authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell, describing the sweeping changes occurring in the American religious landscape over the past half century and their social consequences: on politics, on youth, on tolerance, and on civic engagement.

Brian Lehrer interview available here

MSNBC “Morning Joe” interview available here.

For more on American Grace, see the American Grace blog including interviews about American Grace on BBC, NPR Weekend Edition, PBS NewsHour, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, Talk of the Nation, etc.

New: quality social capital data available online

Rating of large cities in Group Participation 2008-2009, CNCS data

The Corporation for National Service (CNCS) several years ago started making volunteering data available online through Volunteering in America , with a research brief, rankings and profiles for all states and big cities, and even downloadable summary data.

The Corporation has now released comparable social capital data.  See: Civic Life in America website.

They have an Issue Brief describing their overall results across 5 dimensions (service which includes volunteering, group participation,  connecting to civic information, social connectedness,  and political action).

One can see the ranking of states or large cities across these dimensions (volunteering, voting, working with neighbors or group participation).

And one can see geographic profiles of states (here’s NY) or communities (here’s the Twin Cities for example).  And summary data can be exported (to a PDF, Excel table, etc.).

These data, in addition to being a great boon to scholars, are highly useful for local leaders.  For example, Governor Schwarzenegger used the California volunteer data to develop new public polices around volunteering, state legislative support for those efforts, and ultimately created the first cabinet-level position on service and volunteering in the state.  Driven by public discussions about the low level of volunteering in New York City, highlighted through CNCS research releases, Mayor Bloomberg launched a new civic initiative for the city including launching a Civic Corps, further buttressed with borough-level data from CNCS.  Many press outlets help spread the word about how cities and states are doing against one another and encourage friendly competition for citizens to become more actively engaged.

Well done and keep up the good work.  With thanks to CNCS for their leadership on this issue.

See earlier post on advances in social capital measurement.

See later post on “US expands social capital measures

The Corporate Spark

(Photo by Andy Tinkham)

Frank Koller has a very interesting new book Spark that describes Lincoln Electric’s unusual corporate history. Founded in 1895 in Cleveland, it has provided lifelong employment to any employees were meeting their goals and has annually paid a bonus, averaging 60% of worker’s salaries.

The book dovetails well with some current (no pun intended-as Lincoln is an arc welding company) research we are engaged in on the impact of hard times on social and civic engagement.  We are the midst of developing an academic paper, but the popularization of the argument can be found in this op-ed.

In short, both being unemployed and being surrounded by more unemployed Americans, is bad for Americans’ civic and social engagement.  One possible solution is, like Germany, to create incentives for companies to preserve jobs during hard times, rather than having company’s default cost-cutting strategy be to shed jobs.  While cost-cutting and job retention seem incompatible, they need not be. Workers could agree, for example, to each voluntary take a 10% pay cut for the solidarity of all rather than shedding 10% of the workers.

Koller’s book looks at this second strategy.  Companies like Lincoln Electric, founded by the son of an itinerant Christian minister,  adopted some variant of the Golden Rule.  Treat employees as you would want to be treated.  Make sure that all hard-working employees keep their jobs in good times and bad; share the profits from workers’ innovations back to the workers.

The Lincoln Electric annual bonus started in the Great Depression when Lincoln promised his workers that any increase in profits would be shared with all employees.  It has evolved to be a strong part of the corporate culture and Lincoln Electric employees have continued to innovate to keep American jobs, even during a period when almost all metal-working jobs were moving overseas.  Lincoln formalized their Lifetime Employment Agreement in 1958, provided workers were meeting targets.  Lincoln Electric is not overly soft or sentimental about employees; they note that tough economic times can be ripe times to shed unproductive workers.

Overall, it’s a great read, giving one a sense of the values of the company’s founders and later leaders, giving one a picture of the challenges that Lincoln Electric has had to overcome, and helping to crystallize an innovative model that is atypical in America.  I also liked that Koller didn’t try to sugarcoat Lincoln Electric (LE), pointing out places where it didn’t work so well, or how physically difficult the work at Lincoln Electric typically was.

Some comments on the book, not meant to take away from a very interesting read:

1) First, it is generally not optimal to select on the dependent variable.  This is just jargon for saying that if I want to know whether X works (say lifetime employment and annual bonuses) it is usually good to make sure that you include organizations or companies in your sample that didn’t take this strategy and find out if they succeeded or not.  Otherwise, if you track a company that employed these strategies, you can’t isolate what outcomes are uniquely a consequence of this strategy;

2) The book made me wonder why the practice of lifetime employment and LE’s bonus strategy isn’t more widespread across companies if it has been so successful.  It’s quite possible that the lay reader (you or me) hasn’t heard of Lincoln Electric (LE), but it would be astonishing if other metal-working companies didn’t know of its strategy. If Lincoln Electric is so successful, what about it has been their secret ingredient? Is Lincoln Electric successful because of their culture (open-door policy, paying workers piece rates, annual merit bonus system, and job protection)?  Is it their relentless innovation with arc welding? Is the innovation and the corporate culture  related?  Was it the job protection agreement or something about the culture passed on by the founding brothers John Lincoln the inventor and James Lincoln the CEO-manager)?  In a book of this kind, it is always hard to tell. Koller notes in Chapter 4 that many other companies tried lifetime employment in the US but the guarantees did not survive.  Koller argues the Goldilocks theory:  some companies’ lifelong employment approaches were too hot (too coddled an atmosphere that stifled innovation) and others were too cold (workers at these companies didn’t trust management sufficiently and fell prey to unions that claimed that workers were being co-opted).  Ironically, the same lifelong employment practices that fell by the wayside in the US (outside of LE), were partly used to explain Japan’s rise to economic prominence in the 1980s.  Koller mainly attributes the loss of such lifelong employment policies either to issues of leader succession (a new leader that didn’t share this as a value) or economic hard times or fights with unions, but a more analytic look at this would have been interesting.  Also useful to have better data on which other firms during era of “Welfare Capitalism” in the late 1800s were also founded with job guarantees (like Sears). [Chapter 1 has a nice simple history of American labor relations during this period when the Lincoln Electric bonus was established.]

3) Kroller maintains that LE’s gamble to keep lifetime employment  “paid off, ” an assertion I felt simpatico with but didn’t feel that he ever really proved.

4) Retaining workers over their lifetime often requires, as the book notes, reassigning workers to new divisions, if their current division is shedding jobs or doesn’t need as many workers?  Koller asserts that complaints have been relatively few at LE, but how did the company get workers to be relatively flexible and what has ensured that this process works well?  I assume that the key ingredient is trust between workers and management, but it would have been useful to better understand how that trust was built and how the process worked.  [Koller does talk about the importance of trust to their merit-rating and bonus system elsewhere in the book and returns to the theme of trust in the conclusion.]

Koller also provides an interesting chapter about how despite Harvard Business School teaching the case of Lincoln Electric, many business school professors are wary of the Lincoln model:  they think it is inefficient to lock human resources into lifelong relationships when the most productive use of these employees’ talents may change over time; or they believe that lifelong employment is an “anchor around the neck of an executive” during times when a company must change rapidly and radically.

Koller also has two shorter sections on two companies, one east-coast (Hypertherm in Hanover, NH) and one west-coast Xilinx (Bay Area) that have tried other strategies to be loyal to their employees, with differing fates.  Hypertherm has been true to its no-layoff policy through two very tough downturns but is just about to face the transition to a new leader.  Xilinx worked through a very tough economic period by offering employees $10,000 sabbaticals to go back to school or work for non-profits.  They rehired these employees who wanted to return, following the upturn in the tech economy but in 2009 with a new CEO on board, who didn’t believe in lifelong employment, many Xilinx employees were let go and the implicit lifetime employment promise which has existed since 1996 quickly evaporated.