Tag Archives: 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.

Update on British government measurement of happiness [UPDATED 7/24/12]

Dancing in Bankside London-Flickr photo by ChrisJL

I reported earlier on the British government’s recent foray into measuring the happiness of its citizens.

Cameron charged their Office of National Statistics (their equivalent of the Census Bureau) with asking respondents to rate themselves on a 1-10 scale on the following items:

  • How happy did you feel yesterday?
  • How anxious did you feel yesterday?
  • How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

The first results of the Measuring National Wellbeing Programme (MNWP) or “Wellbeing Index” were released on July 24, 2012.

Among their results, they found that: 16-19 year olds and 65-79 year olds were the most happy Brits as were married Brits, the Indians and folks living on Orkney, or the Western or Shetland Islands.

Roger Cohen reports that Andrew Oswald, a well-respected economics researcher on happiness at Warwick believes this is “a good start, although he would have added, ‘How well have you been sleeping?’ — an important mental health indicator — and ‘How pressurized do you feel your time is?’  The important thing, he argues, it to shift ‘from the concept of financial prosperity to the idea of emotional prosperity.’ Perhaps that’s the 21st-century indicator we need: gross emotional prosperity, or G.E.P.”

Roger Cohen’s own views of the happiness initiative: “So I’m ready to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt and even give a wary nod to his related “Big Society” project, also the source of much guffawing. The essence of this idea is that people can give more to one another — British A.T.M.s, for example, would automatically give customers an option of donating to charity. It’s a tough sell in a grim economy, but it captures a need among dislocated people to connect more.

“That’s also true in the United States. Liberty is an inalienable right of Americans, along with the pursuit of happiness. Note the distinction here, evidence of the wisdom of the founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom but, when it comes to happiness, only the quest for it is underwritten. Still, perhaps it’s time to measure just how that quest is going.”

See, “The Happynomics of Life” (NY Times column by Roger Cohen, 3/14/2011).

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.

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)