Category Archives: britain

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).

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

Is a British Obama possible?

Obama '08 (photo by beebo wallace)
Obama ’08 (photo by beebo wallace)

Harvard and Manchester through the SCHMi collaboration released their findings about whether a British Obama is possible.  Broadly we found that substantial generational patterns of increased tolerance in both Britain and the U.S., whether related to attitudes towards a black boss or intermarriage or towards black politicians (in the US).  Robert Putnam (Harvard Professor and visiting professor at Univ. of Manchester) noted that: “Change is taking a similar form on both sides of the Atlantic: exactly as in the US, the generation of Britons uncomfortable with non-whites in positions of power or intimacy is gradually dying off, and being replaced by its more tolerant offspring….It is fair to add, however, that the smaller minority population in the UK, as well as the much shallower pool of black politicians and the more centralised political recruitment paths, still tends to work against black representation in Britain.”

There is an interesting article on these findings by Allegra Stratton “Britain ready for black prime minister” in today’s Guardian and in-depth piece called “Mixed Blessing” and an editorial “Geography of Race” by co-author of the forthcoming book Age of Obama, Tom Clark.

In addition, the BBC aired several pieces on the story (“Black prime minister likely to take decades” and Robert Putnam interview with the BBC).

One can find the underlying scholarly papers (on which the report draws) and a sample chapter of the book Age of Obama here.

Press release on this topic available here.

Background:

Social Change: a Harvard-Manchester Initiative (SCHMi) is a collaboration of Harvard University and the University of Manchester that seeks to understand the complex consequences of big societal changes, like the Industrial Revolution or the civil rights revolution, which require careful inter-disciplinary research to identify ways to maximize social benefits and minimize social costs. Much as the sharp declines in life expectancy in the train of the Industrial Revolution in the later 1800s spawned empirical research that uncovered the importance of clean water and sanitation and ultimately reversed the adverse health effects, so too SCHMi aims to spur careful research on large-scale social issues today and thus to foster social progress. Transatlantic comparison and transatlantic learning have long been pivotal to such efforts.

One objective of the SCHMi collaboration is to produce roughly annually a book or report for the informed public, comparing and contrasting the US and UK experiences on some major social issue. The first project, nearing now completion, is on diversity/immigration. We anticipate future reports on religion and public life, and on inequality. The fourth and final topic has not yet been determined, but will likely be either the social consequences of technology or the changing workplace.

Diversity is a critically important subject. In the opening decade of the 21st century immigration and racial diversity are high on both countries’ agendas, for both are undergoing rapid demographic change. But their starting points and trajectories are different, and the policy debates, while intertwined transatlantically, are also different. The Age of Obama (to come out in Fall 2009) compares the social, economic, demographic, and political consequences of immigration and racial diversity in the US and the UK. The work is unusually timely because many are now wondering whether there could be a British Obama.

The Age of Obama is written by Tom Clark, an experienced writer for The Guardian, and builds on substantive contributions from Professors Waters (Harvard), Fieldhouse (Manchester), Peach (Manchester-Oxford), Yaojun Li (Manchester), Daniel Hopkins (post-doc, Harvard Govt. Dept.), and Rob Ford (post-doc, Manchester sociology) with overall project direction being provided by Robert Putnam.

  • The underlying chapters are:1. Comparing Immigrant Integration in the US and the UK (based on research by Mary Waters)2. Ethnic and Racial Segregation in the US and Britain (based on research by Ceri Peach)3. Immigration and neighborhood diversity in the U.K. and the U.S.  Does diversity damage social capital? (based on research by Ed Fieldhouse and David Cutts)4. Socio-economic integration of immigrants in the US and UK (based on research by Yaojun Li)5. How levels of neighborhood immigration influence attitudes towards immigration in the U.S and the U.K and generational changes in the US and UK in attitudes toward race (based on research by Dan Hopkins and Rob Ford).

Brits increasingly “Bowling Alone”

(photo by Matthew Strong)

(photo by Matthew Strong)

Research commissioned for the BBC found that UK society is a far lonelier one over the last 30 years (1971-2001), noting that “neighbourhoods in every part of the UK have become more socially fragmented.”

Daniel Dorling (at Sheffield Univ.) headed the research team which created a formula based on “the proportion of people in an area who are single, those who live alone, the numbers in private rented accommodation and those who have lived there for less than a year….The higher the proportion of people in those categories, the less rooted the community, according to social scientists. They refer to it as the level of ‘anomie’ or the ‘feeling of not belonging’.”

Using these measures they found that the weakest communities in 1971 were stronger than the strongest communities in 2001.  An astonishing 97% of neighborhoods had experienced this increased isolation over these 30 years.

“The researchers conclude that the increase in anomie weakens the “social glue” of communities. The result, they suggest, is that neighbourhoods are likely to be less trusting and more fearful.”

While the methodology is different (and far less multi-dimensional), this is of a piece with the increased social isolation and declines in social capital found by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone over a similar period in the US (although the US declines probably began in the late 1950s/early 1960s).  [For some assertions that the British civic decline is less steep, see Democracies in Flux, with a chapter by British academic Peter Hall.]

See BBC news story, “Life in UK ‘has become lonelier‘ (including a map of these trends).

Full report “Changing UK” available here.