Category Archives: john helliwell

Gross National Happiness?

Flickr/smysnbrgThe United Nations held a historic UN Conference on Happiness on April 2 to discuss wide discrepancies in levels of happiness worldwide and whether countries should track happiness in addition to other more standard economic measures. The meeting drew 600 delegates, including leaders and scholars from around the world.  The main consequence of the meeting, in addition to exploring what is known about happiness research was to focus on happiness and wellbeing at the Sustainable Development Rio+20 conference in June.   It is also likely that when the new new Sustainable Development Goals come out in 2015 (a re-working of the Millennium Goals) happiness will be on the list of priorities, joining the stalwarts like anti-poverty  and educational goals.

The UN meeting follows on the visible efforts of Nicholas Sarkozy (the so called Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission) in 2009 and the decision in 2010 of the UK government to begin measuring happiness regularly.

Attending the conference were, among others, my colleague Robert Putnam, Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, Costa Rican president Laura Chincill, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley.

“The US has had a three time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn’t budged” [Jeffrey Sachs]

Sachs suggested that there were much more efficient strategies, as shown by other countries, for how to achieve higher levels of average wellbeing than to focus on boosting the size of the economy, as the US has done.

P.M. Thinley (whose country Bhutan has endorsed Gross National Happiness) suggested that focusing on happiness worldwide was essential if the world was to get on a sustainable trajectory.  Last summer, led by Bhutan, the UN unanimously adopted a measure “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.”

Sachs, John Helliwell (a friend and colleague) and Richard Layard, helped produce the interesting background World Happiness Report for the conference which both discusses worldwide variation in happiness and scientific evidence that happiness can be reliably measured and is meaningful.

The Guardian article by Mark Williamson also describes a conference the day before the UN Conference: “[G]lobal experts debated the cutting edge of wellbeing research. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, had explained how happiness is a skill that can be learned; public policy expert Robert Putnam showed us the vital importance of social connections; economist Joseph Stiglitz highlighted the flaws with GDP; Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explained the reciprocal benefits of altruism; and Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, reminded us that there’s much more to a flourishing life than just the absence of misery.”

Excerpt from World Happiness Report:

We live in an age of stark contradictions. The world enjoys technologies of unimaginable sophistication; yet has at least one billion people without enough to eat each day. The world economy is propelled to soaring new heights of productivity through ongoing technological and organizational advance; yet is relentlessly destroying the natural environment in the process. Countries achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to new crises of obesity, smoking, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life.

These contradictions would not come as a shock to the greatest sages of humanity, including Aristotle and the Buddha. The sages taught humanity, time and again, that material gain alone will not fulfill our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness. The challenge is real for all parts of the world.

As one key example, the world’s economic superpower, the United States, has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry.  Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.

The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. If we continue mindlessly along the current  economic trajectory, we risk undermining the Earth’s life support systems – food supplies, clean water, and stable climate – necessary for human health and even survival in some places. On the other hand, if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment. “Sustainable Development” is the term given to the combination of human well-being, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.”

Prince Charles, who attended and gave a talk, said: “The grim reality is that our planet has reached a point of crisis. The time for us to act is rapidly running out. We are facing what could be described as a ‘perfect storm’: the combination of pollution and over-consumption of finite natural resources; the very real risk of catastrophic climate change; unprecedented levels of financial indebtedness, and a population of seven billion that is rising fast.”

For prior reports on happiness, read here and here is a summary of recent happiness research.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his introductory remarks commented: ““Gross National Product (GNP) has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress. We need a new economic paradigm that recognises the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental wellbeing are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.” Read his introductory remarks here.

[BBC report on the conference here.]  NYT pre-Conference story here by Timothy Ryback.

For more on the link between social capital and wellbeing, read “Social Capital, The Economy, and Wellbeing” (John Helliwell).

Import of best friends and socializing at work

Flickr photo by gwilmore

Bob Putnam and I were recently meeting with Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup.

Jim related an interesting “social capital” finding of Gallup.  That employees having a ‘best’ friend at work is vitally important to the success of a company.   Gallup faced considerable opposition to this question from CEOs who didn’t want Gallup asking this of their employees and who said they wanted their employees focused on doing their job, not developing a best friend at work.  Gallup tried reformulating the question to ask about ‘close friends’ at work, but found that this question was not nearly as predictive of a whole host of beneficial outcomes.

Those who had best friends at work (only 30% of Americans) were 7 times more likely to be engaged with their job, they exhibited higher sales and profitability, better engaged customers,  produced higher quality work, had greater commitment to the firm’s mission,  had better safety records (since friends often made sure they were complying with safety precautions), were happier at work, and had a higher chance of sticking with a firm.  If workers didn’t have a best friend, only 8% of them were engaged in their job.

Gallup also observed that employees who report having a best friend at work were:

  • 43% more likely to report having received praise or recognition for their work in the last seven days.
  • 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development.
  • 35% more likely to report coworker commitment to quality.
  • 28% more likely to report that in the last six months, someone at work has talked to them about their progress.
  • 27% more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel their job is important.
  • 27% more likely to report that their opinions seem to count at work.
  • 21% more likely to report that at work, they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

Gallup also found other social capital measures to be key to successful business organizations: having someone at work who cares about you, and having a mentor.

This finding gibes with workplace social-capital work that we have done and work of John Helliwell and Haifang Huang on the importance of trust of management in ensuring wellbeing of those at the workplace.

Two MIT researchers (Sandy Pentland and Benjamin Waber) also found using sociometers that even apparently idle workplace socializing increases productivity.  [Here's a link to earlier work of Sandy Pentland.]

Gallup also noted that they do 1000 US surveys a day and one question they ask is for people to give their weight, and they can actually see American obesity inching up day by day.

In two other social capital results, not focused on the workplace:

1) Gallup has also found that people need 6 hours of social time a day (on the phone, at work, at home, talking to friends, on e-mail) in order to “thrive”.  with no social time in a day, one has an equal chance of having a good or bad day, but with 3 hours of social time, the chance of a bad day drops to 10%.

2) Through Gallup we also learned of an experiment by researchers at Ohio State University  on the connection between stress and physical health.   42 married couples were given 8 tiny identical blisters; the skin was removed and a suction devices put on top that monitored the rate of healing. Researchers found that in marital relationships with hostility, wounds took almost twice as long to heal.  The magnitude was shocking; such hostility and lack of relational closeness could rival or exceed traditional physical factors.

For more background on some of this, see Gallup Management Journal piece or  Tom Rath, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Live Without or Wellbeing (with James Harter)

For the Ohio State University study, see Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., Timothy J. Loving, Jeffrey R. Stowell, William B. Malarkey, Stanley Lemeshow, Stephanie L. Dickinson, Ronald Glaser, “Hostile Marital Interactions, Proinflammatory Cytokine Production, and Wound Healing,” Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005;62:1377-1384.

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.]

Diversity impedes redistribution

(Flickr photo by Maistora)

(Flickr photo by Maistora)

It has long been noted that in more diverse countries, it is harder to sustain wealth redistributive efforts, and public support for such programs wanes.  It has always been hard to disentangle culture from national wealth and diversity in understanding what causes this. 

A recent paper by HKS colleagues Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal (using European Social Survey data) gains traction on this issue by looking at immigrants to developed countries and finds that immigrants bring with them their attitudes about redistribution.  So immigrants, controlling for their wealth, education, etc., and their receiving country’s attitudes towards redistribution are more likely to support redistribution if they country that they come from supports redistribution. 

As the Economist summarized this:

Even after controlling for income, education and other relevant economic and social factors such as work history and age, views about redistribution in an immigrant’s home country are a strong predictor of his own opinions. Indeed, this measure of “cultural background” explains as much as income levels, and three-fifths as much as income and education combined. These results hold even for immigrants who moved 20 years before they were surveyed; they cannot be attributed to people not having had time to adjust their views.

 

And the results can not be explained by self-selection — which immigrants choose to migrate as these impacts would favor immigrants moving to countries that are more similar to the immigrants’ own views about redistribution.

Luttmer and Singhal found that these differences fade over time: the culture of immigrants has only about 2/3 of the effect on second generation immigrants as foreign-born immigrants.

The findings are consistent with some research done by John Helliwell about immigrants and their levels of social capital (social and civic engagement).
Helliwell describes the fact that trust levels are lower among Canadian immigrants than non-immigrants and that these differences persist even controlling for factors like education, income, time in community, etc. Tom Rice and Jan Feldman have noted the importance of immigrants’ home country trust in setting their trust levels when they emigrate. ["Civic Culture and Democracy From Europe to America" (1997).] Using this framework, Helliwell finds that these trust differentials disappear in Canada when one controls for average trust levels in the home country of the immigrants. Helliwell also asserts that contrary to the “footprint of imported trust” which lasts for many generations in the U.S., there is starting to be evidence in Canada that this it may disappear within one generation. Helliwell thus asks whether there are generalizable lessons about the win-win benefits to integrative governmental attitudes toward immigration in promoting better inter-racial attitudes and higher trust.

These findings are also broadly consistent with work done by Daniel Elazar on political culture in American states (in American Federalism: A View From the States), where he found, remarkably, that differences in “moral political culture”, especially in the upper midwest, were explained by broad migratory patterns of immigrants decades earlier from highly civic and trusting Scandinavian countries.

See “In the Blood: Attitudes towards redistribution have a strong cultural component” (Economist, June 4, 2009)

And Culture, Context, and the Taste for Redistribution by Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal, May 2009