Category Archives: Subjective Well-being

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).

The connection between religiosity and wellbeing

Our colleague, Chaeyoon Lim, wrote a summary of his research findings on the connection between religiosity and wellbeing using the amazing Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).

Excerpt: “Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. Frequent churchgoers experience an average of 3.36 positive emotions per day compared with an average of 3.08 among those who never attend. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”

Not included in Chaeyoon’s published comments, he also found that, even controlling for other factors like age, gender, race, and the like, Americans would have either had to increase their income by $90,000 a year or gain a college education to have the same increase in life satisfaction as they get from weekly church attendance.”

If you click on the below graph, you can see that all religions and even respondents with no religion frequently reported higher life satisfaction  as they went to church more often (controlling for all the standard factors like age, region, gender, income, education, etc.).  You may ask how those with no religion attended “church” frequently;  most typically in our Faith Matters surveys it was when a religious spouse got their non-religious spouse to accompany them.

Chaeyoon’s work also shows that while all Americans are happier on the weekend, secular Americans experience a drop from Saturday to Sunday in their happiness;  religious Americans are happier every day from Monday through Saturday and then their happiness, rather than declining on Sunday, goes up even higher than Saturday.

Read “In U.S., Churchgoers Boast Better Mood, Especially on Sundays: Those who don’t attend religious services often see their mood decline” (by Chaeyoon Lim)

For other work on the connection between happiness, life satisfaction and religiosity, see American Grace (end of Chapter 12) and “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction” by Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, American Sociological Review 2010, Vol. 75(6): 914–93.

Happiness: how to increase it, UK Government measurement

Flickr photo by greeneydmantis

Two interesting updates on happiness research:

1) Being in the present increases your happiness.  A somewhat surprising finding since  one would think that daydreaming about a Tahitian vacation, a Carlton Fisk’s memorable 1975 world series home run for the Red Sox, or recalling something hilarious one’s children said, would increase your happiness.  But social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth (both from Harvard) found, using an iPod app called trackyourhappiness, that the Buddhists were indeed right.  Dwell in the present and be mindful.  Trackyourhappiness beeped 2,200 volunteer subjects at various times of the day and asked them describe what they were doing, with whom, and how happy they were.  The researchers analyzed the quarter of a million datapoints to determine what activities provided the greatest or least happiness.


When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being ”very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time….

”I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there,” Dr. Gilbert says.

Of course, it might well be that the mind wanders because the underlying activities are less “scintillating”; it’s hard to say whether being in the present for commuting or grooming would dramatically increase the happiness levels of doing those activities, although it might reduce traffic accidents and grooming accidents…

See “When The Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays” (NY Times, 11/16/10, by John Tierney)

See here for a recent summary post on happiness research.

2) The British government has followed up on Prime Minister David Cameron’s interest in wellbeing and will begin measurement this year.  The UK government follows countries like Bhutan and Canada in regularly measuring this concept. France has also been recommended to take similar action from a high-powered academic commission advising French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Sarkozy announced in 2009 that he plans to measure happiness and wellbeing as part of France’s economic progress in the near future.

A Guardian piece notes that there is some ” ‘nervousness’… in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week’s riot in Westminster…”  Cameron has indicated that tracking wellbeing is as important as ever during a downturn, and his commitment to integrate wellbeing centrally into government policy.

The government is charging the national statistician Jil Matheson with crafting the exact happiness questions to add to the Office of National Statistics’ ongoing household survey. Cameron has asked for regular measurement of “subjective wellbeing” (including happiness) and how well Brits are meeting their “life goals”.

The new data, to begin being measured in Spring 2011, may be published quarterly like British crime data, and will be coupled with other social measures like social capital to provide data on Brits’ quality of life.

John Helliwell “told the Guardian: ‘The UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report: systematically measuring subjective wellbeing as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices.’  “

See “Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood: Despite ‘nervousness’, David Cameron wants measure of wellbeing to steer government policy” (Guardian, Nov. 14, 2010, by Allegra Stratton)

See David Cameron’s November 25, 2010 transcript regarding UK measurement of wellbeing.

See how UK ranks to other countries in happiness

Datablog: see how our happiness rating compares

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.]

Does activism make you happy?

Flickr photo by Matthew Bradley

Flickr photo by Matthew Bradley

I’m quoted in the Boston Globe’s Ideas Section in “The Upside of ‘down with’” (Drake Bennett, 10/11/09).

The article reports on a forthcoming study “Some Benefits of Being an Activist” by Tim Kasser and Malte Klar that activism is associated with happiness (2009, Political Psychology 30(5) ).

The Globe article neglected to quote me that there are lots of reason to support activism — it may increase people’s confidence in making a difference, it may improve governmental quality and leaders’ accountability, it may spark extra-governmental change or reveal the immorality of laws (as seen in the Civil Rights Era).

That said, I am skeptical, as the Globe article noted that it is activism per se that is causing happiness, based on our forthcoming religious research.  Religious Americans are more happy, but it has nothing to do with their theology, or what they hear from the pulpit, or a sense of calling.  It is explained by being in a morally-infused social network.  Praying alone or attending a church where you hear the sermons (but don’t make friends) makes you no happier.  Similarly if one looks at research by Alan Krueger and others, it is social activities that bring happiness.

So while I’m not sure that bowlers are doing as much for government accountability as protesters, my guess would be that they are equally happy.