Tag Archives: Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission

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).

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.

Excerpt:

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

Alternative measures to US GDP to air this summer

Flickr Commons photo

The NYT Magazine section (5/16/10) had a long article describing efforts of economists and other social scientists to develop measures for the US that go beyond GDP.  As many have remarked before, what’s good for the GDP is not necessarily good for the US or its citizens:  post hurricane rebuilding efforts, a crime wave that forces people to buy burglar alarms, clear-cutting old growth forest, are but a few examples of activities that boost GDP but don’t necessarily boost welfare.  The article summarizes this as “High GDP Man” vs. Low GDP Man” with the former engaged in lots of activities that boost GDP (hiring a nanny, running a dryer, commuting to work) but don’t necessarily increase his welfare or happiness.

The article discusses the efforts of Chris Hoenig, spurred by the august National Academy of Sciences and various leading national foundations, to develop scores of alternative measures to the GDP.  His effort, called State of the USA, will go live this summer.

Jon Gertner reports: “Hoenig’s State of the USA will become a national-indicators panel, run by the National Academy of Sciences. Think of it as a report card meant to show a country’s citizens the exact areas — in health, education, the environment and so forth — where improvement is called for; such indicators would also record how we improve, or fail to improve, over time. The State of the USA intends to ultimately post around 300 indicators on issues like crime, energy, infrastructure, housing, health, education, environment and the economy. All areas of measurement will be chosen by members of the National Academy; all will be reviewed for rigor and accuracy by a panel of accomplished experts. With easy access to national information, Hoenig told me optimistically, Americans might soon be able ”to shift the debate from opinions to more evidence-based discussions to ideally a discussion about what solutions are and are not working.”

The article also summarizes the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission, that advised Nicholas Sarkozy, on potential alternative measures to GDP to measure French wellbeing.  Robert Putnam, was on the all-star commission, and was quoted in this article.  [See earlier blog post on blue-chip Sarkozy Commission’s recommendation of measuring social capital.]

Putting a Number on Happiness

As difficult as it might be to compile sustainability indicators, it’s equally challenging to create measures that describe our social and emotional lives. In this area, there’s a fair amount of skepticism from the academic establishment about putting happiness onto a national dashboard of well-being. William Nordhaus of Yale told me that some of the measurements are ”absurd.” Amartya Sen, too, told me that he has reservations about the worth of statistics that purport to describe human happiness.

Stiglitz and his colleagues nevertheless concluded that such research was becoming sufficiently rigorous to warrant its possible inclusion. At first the connection to G.D.P. can be puzzling. One explanation, however, is that while our current economic measures can’t capture the larger effects of unemployment or chronic depression, providing policy makers with that information may influence their actions. ”You might say, If we have unemployment, don’t worry, we’ll just compensate the person,” Stiglitz told me. ”But that doesn’t fully compensate them.” Stiglitz pointed to the work of the Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who served on the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission, which suggests that losing a job can have repercussions that affect a person’s social connections (one main driver of human happiness, regardless of country) for many years afterward.

When I caught up with Putnam, he said that the ”damage to this country’s social fabric from this economic crisis must have been huge, huge, huge.” And yet, he noted, ”We have plenty of numbers about the economic consequences but none of the numbers about the social consequences.” Over the past decade, Putnam has been working on measures — having to do with church attendance, community involvement and the like — to quantify our various social links; just recently, the U.S. Census Bureau agreed to include questions of his in some of its monthly surveys. Still, his efforts are a work in progress. When I asked Putnam whether government should be in the business of fostering social connections, he replied, ”I don’t think we should have a government Department of Friendship that introduces people to one another.” But he argued that just as registering the social toll of joblessness would add a dimension of urgency to the unemployment issue, it seemed possible that measuring social connections, and putting those measures on a national dashboard, could be in society’s best interests. As it happens, the Canadian Index of Well-Being will contain precisely such a measure; and it’s very likely that a related measure of ”social capital,” as it’s often called, will become a State of the USA indicator too. ”People will get sick and die, because they don’t know their neighbors,” Putnam told me. ”And the health effects of social isolation are of the same magnitude as people smoking. If we can care about people smoking, because that reduces their life expectancy, then why not think about social isolation too?”

It seems conceivable, in fact, that including various measures of emotional well-being on a national dashboard could lead to policies quite different from what we have now. ”There’s an enormous inequality of suffering in society,” Daniel Kahneman told me recently. By his estimate, ”if you look at the 10 percent of people who spend the most time suffering, they account for almost half of the total amount of suffering.” Kahneman suggested that tremendous social and economic gains could therefore be made by dealing with the mental-health problems — depression, say — of a relatively small fraction of the population. At the same time, he added, new measures of emotional well-being that he has been working on might soon give us a more enlightened perspective on the complex relationship between money and happiness.

Currently, research suggests that increased wealth leads us to report increased feelings of satisfaction with our lives — a validation, in effect, that higher G.D.P. increases the well-being in a country. But Kahneman told me that his most recent studies, conducted with the Princeton economist Angus Deaton, suggest that money doesn’t necessarily make much of a difference in our moment-to-moment happiness, which is distinct from our feelings of satisfaction. According to their work, income over about $70,000 does nothing to improve how much we enjoy our activities on a typical day. And that raises some intriguing questions. Do we want government to help us increase our sense of satisfaction? Or do we want it to help us get through our days without feeling misery? The two questions lead toward two very different policy options. Is national progress a matter of making an increasing number of people very rich? Or is it about getting as many people as possible into the middle class?

While Jon Gertner notes that there is some political opposition to this, Enrico Giovannini, the head of Italy’s national statistics agency, observes that a half-dozen countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom and France, have expanded their “productivity” measures to focus on wellbeing rather than merely economic growth.    The Stiglitz Commission recommended a “dashboard” approach, honing in on a few more critical dimensions; so far in the US, the metrics are diffuse enough that it may be harder to keep one’s eye on all the instrumentation and see how we are doing.

Some fear that while the US looks great internationally on GDP measures (for example, because Americans take very little vacation), it may look less stellar measured in “well-being terms”.  To those who exalt our free markets and entrepreneurship as a singular deity, this is heading us toward troubled waters; to the architects of such a revamped system, that’s exactly the point — we ought to keep our eyes on the prize (our wellbeing) and not be heeding a flawed gauge.

See “The Rise and Fall of the GDP” (NYT Magazine, Jon Gertner, 5/16/10)