Category Archives: happiness

The how of social capital

Flickr/drjausSocial capital is a powerful resource for individuals and communities.  For individuals embedded in dense social networks, these networks and the attendant norms of trust and reciprocity strongly shape individuals’ ability to land jobs, earn higher salaries, and be happier and healthier.  But, even for those not in the networks, having neighbors who know and trust one another affords benefits in some domains:  better performing local government, safer streets, faster economic growth and better performing schools, among other public goods.

For sure social capital can be used toward negative ends: Al Qaeda, the Crips and the Bloods, the Michigan Militia are all examples where group members can accomplish things that they could not accomplish individually (because of  group social capital).  That said, the literature supports that the vast majority of what social capital is used for is to produce positive ends, not negative ones.

But why?  What makes social capital so powerful?

Robert Putnam and I had always focused on information-flows as the key mechanism.  So these social networks:

  • enable individuals to access valuable information: how to get something done, hear of  job leads, learn how better to promote one’s health, find out what is happening in a community, etc.; or
  • help individuals find partners for joint economic transactions (e.g., to know with whom to partner  in business, to close a sale to a friend or a friend of a friend, to locate a neighbor with whom one can exchange tools or expertise); or
  • spread reputations of members (or neighbors or local merchants) which causes all people in these networks to behave in a more trustworthy manner and facilitates altruism.  There is always a short-term gain to be had from cheating someone, but if the social networks quickly spread the information that one cannot be trusted, this short-term gain is swamped by the lost future opportunity to do business with others; thus it becomes more rational to be honest and trustworthy in communities (physical or otherwise) with strong social networks. Individuals are also likely to be kinder and more altruistic toward others because they know that “what goes around comes around” in densely inter-connected networks and communities; and
  • facilitate collective action: it is easier to mobilize others around some shared goal like politics or zoning or improving trash pick-up if others in the  community already know and  trust you, rather than your having to build those social relationships from scratch.

But Connected (by Nick Christakis and James Fowler) raises a different frame for thinking about this issue: network effects or contagion.  Are there properties of the networks themselves that help spread practices, independent of the flow of information?  This is difficult to answer fully since much of their evidence comes from the Framingham Heart Study where  they know who people’s friends are but not what they are doing with each other or what they are saying to each other.

That said, some of their results can be explained by information flows (e.g., political influence, or getting flu shots), but some seem likely to be working through other channels and not through information-flows (e.g., happiness or loneliness cascades).

In these “network effects” or contagion, Fowler & Christakis typically find that the strongest “network” effects are directly with one’s friends (one degree of separation), but these effects also ripple out two more levels to  friends of one’s friends (two degrees) and friends of the friends of one’s friends (three degrees).  As one would expect, much like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples get smaller as one moves out.  In fact they refer to the “Three Degrees of Influence” Rule that effects are typically only seen up to three degrees out and not further: in the spread of happiness, political views, weight gain, obesity, and smoking.  For example, in happiness, if one is happy, one degree out (controlling for other factors), one’s friends are 15% happier, at 2 degrees of separation they are 10% happier, and they are 6% happier at 3 degrees of separation.  For obesity, the average obese American is more likely to have obese friends, one, two and three degrees of separation out, but not further.  Quitting smoking has diminishing effects out to three degrees.  For political influence, they note a “get-out-the-vote” experiment that shows that knocking on a stranger’s door and urging the resident to support a recycling initiative had a 10% impact on his/her likelihood to vote for the initiative; what was noteworthy to Christakis and Fowler is that the door-knocking made the spouse (who was not at the door) 6% more likely to support the recycling initiative based on communication with his/her spouse.  They conjecture that if this 60% social pass-through rate of political appeals (6% for spouse vs. 10% for person answering door) applied to one’s friends and if everyone had 2 friends, then one person urging friends to vote a certain way would have a 10% impact on one’s friends, a 6% impact on one’s friends’ friends (2 degrees) and a 3.6% impact 3 degrees out.  Multiplying these political effects all the way through, one vote could create a 30x multiplier. [The example is eye-opening and suggests that voting and political persuasion may be less irrational than thought, but also is based on a huge number of assumptions and assumes no cross-competing messages from friends.]

In an experiment on altrusim (explained in this post) Christakis & Fowler found that $1.00 of altruism, ultimately produced $1.05 of multiplier effect ($.20 one ripple out with 3 others and $.05 of altruism two ripples out with 9 others).

Christakis and Fowler, in their book, talk about contagion effects in voting, suicide, loneliness, depression, happiness, violence, STDs, number of sexual partners, binge drinking, back pain, and getting flu shots, among others.  [One summary of many of their findings, which they note, is "You make me sick!"]

Why do these effects only reach out 3 degrees of influence?  Christakis & Fowler suggest 4 potential explanations.

1) intrinsic decay: C&F liken this to a game of telephone where as the information gets repeated, the content gets lost, or the passion and knowledge of the initiator gets dissipated.

2) Instability of ties: because of what is known as “triadic closure“, if A is friends with B and B is friends with C, it is likely that A will become friends with C.  Because of this, closer-in ties between people have more routes connecting them, and further out ties are more dependent on only one pathway connecting them.  For example, assume Abby and Fran were friends 3 degrees removed via Bert and via Charles. If any of these intervening friendships end (say Bert is no longer friends with Charles), Abby loses her tie to Fran.  Thus, these outer ties are much less stable and averaged across all the “3 degrees of influence” friendships, many more may have zero effect because the path of influence dies out as friends change.

3) cross-information:  as one gets further out away from you, say the friends of the friends of your friends, all of these folks are getting lots of cross-stimuli from lots of other sources (many of which may come from different clusters with different habits or values) and these cross-stimuli start to cancel each other out.

4) evolutionary biology: C&F note that humans evolved in small groups that had a maximum of three degrees of separation so it may be that we became more attuned to being influenced by folks who were in a position to alter our gene pool.

So what are the network influences independent of communication.  There seem like 6 possible channels, and often it is hard to separate one from the other, although some may make more sense for the spread of behaviors and others may make more sense for spread of attitudes or emotions:

1) homophily: “Homophily” is the practice of befriending others like you — “birds of a feather flock together.” Being friends with people who are different than you can be stressful.  This is why in mates and in friends we are likely to choose others with whom we have a lot in common — think of arguments you’ve had with friends about where to go for dinner or what is right or wrong with the world when those friends have very different tastes or politics.  For this reason, one reason for increased clustering over time of obese people or smokers or binge drinkers is that it is stressful to be in groups where one is the minority and either constantly noodging others to change their behavior or else your finding yourself frequently doing what your friends want to and what you do not (e.g., eat fast food, smoke, or listen to heavy metal rock music).  As a consequence, people may vote with their feet and form new ties or strengthen ties with others with whom they have more in common.

2) norms/reference groups/culture/peer pressure:   we often measure the reasonableness of our behavior against our friends.  For example, if our teen friends have all had 6 sexual partners in the last year, then repartnering seems far more normal than if one is friends with a group that is heavily monogamous.  Ditto with obesity or smoking or other possible traits or behaviors.

3) subconscious/imitation:  as suggested with “emotion” below, sometimes we mirror others’ behavior or emotions without even thinking about it.  C&F say it makes sense to think of people as subsconsciously reacting to those around them without being aware of any larger pattern.  They talk about processes by which a “wave” at a sporting event takes place, or fish swim in unison, or geese fly in a V-formation, or crickets become synchronized — all of these happen by individuals mirroring those around them.  And in the process, emergent properties of the group arise (much like a cake takes on the taste unlike any of its individual ingredients).

4) emotions: C&F note that emotions actually affect our physical being — our voices, our faces, our posture.  In experiments, people actually “catch emotions”: others become happier by spending time around happy people or sadder by hanging out with depressed individuals.  In experiments, smiling waiters get bigger tips.  It seems quite plausible that cascades like loneliness, happiness, depression, etc. could spread simply from emotional states, independent of any information flowing through these friendships.

5) social invitations for shared action: friends often invite friends to do things — that’s part of friendship. For behaviors, one of the ways they can spread through networks is that, for example, thin friends could invite friends to exercise more, or obese friends could encourage friends to get ice cream together, or smokers could encourage others to leave the dance for a cig.

Connected notes that it is often hard, for example, to tell imitation and norms apart, “When a man gives up his motorcycle after getting hitched, is he copying his wife’s behavior (she doesn’t have a motorcycle) or adopting a new norm (the infernal things are unsafe?)”

Connected also notes how behaviors or attitudes can spread several social links out, even without the intervening link changing.  They suggest that Amy could have a friend Maria who has a friend Heather.  (Amy and Heather don’t know one another.)  Heather gains weight.  Maria, who really likes Heather, becomes less judgmental of her weight and gradually less judgmental of  obesity in general.  Maria doesn’t change her behavior but when Amy stops exercising with Maria, Maria is less likely to pressure her to resume.  Thus Heather’s obesity changes Amy via Maria (by Maria no longer urging her to keep exercising), but Maria doesn’t change her behavior and Amy and Heather don’t know one another.

It’s interesting stuff to ponder and makes one think more expansively about the role and mechanisms of social capital.  It also evokes a conversation with a Saguaro Seminar participant back in 1998 concerning whether black kids and white kids doing sidewalk painting together on the steps of an art museum could promote inter-racial trust, even if the black kids and white kids didn’t know each other, didn’t talk to one another and never met again.  [My hunch is yes, depending on the strength of their pre-existing beliefs about inter-racial trust, but that talking could make the exchange far more powerful.] Another Saguaro participant wondered whether singing together in a chorus helps build social capital, even if one never has a conversation directly with another member of the chorus.  (In the latter example, in addition to being highly unlikely, you are at least getting some non-verbal information over time from the other choral members about their trustworthiness: do they come regularly and on time, do they respectfully listen to and follow the choralmeister?)

I welcome your thoughts.

For more on the network effects, read pp. 24-30, 25-43 and 112-115 in Connected.

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.

Measuring happiness comes close to home

Flickr photo by seq

We’ve reported earlier on the UK government’s recent decision to measure the happiness of its citizens.  The latest government to do so is neighboring Somerville, MA.  Somerville, which went by the nickname of “Slummerville” in the 1980s for cheap and affordable 3-decker housing and the highest residential concentration of any community in New England, has recently become more hip and gentrified thanks to the revitalization of places like Inman Square and Davis Square.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone is a recent graduate of the mid-career program Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and a visionary who has worked with HKS on many other local government measurement projects (SomerStat). The NY Times quotes Curtatone as saying that the project was a “no-brainer” and he noted that “cities keep careful track of their finances, but a bond rating doesn’t tell us how people feel or why they want to raise a family here or relocate a business here.”

The city is collaborating with happiness expert Dan Gilbert at Harvard and ultimately hopes to use these data to see how things like the extension of the subway green line affect happiness or how Somerville’s happiness compares with neighboring towns.

The voluntary survey asks such questions like:

  • How happy do you feel right now? (1-10 scale)How satisfied are you with your life in general? (1-10 scale)
    In general, how similar are you to other people you know? (1-10 scale)
    When making decisions, are you more likely to seek advice or decide for yourself? (1-10 scale)
  • Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live? (1-10 scale)

The survey also asks residents to rate Somerville’s “beauty or physical setting” [likely fairly low for anyone who has spent time in Somerville], “availability of affordable housing”, quality of local public schools, and effectiveness of local police.

Researchers hope to correlate ratings of well-being, demographics, satisfaction with Somerville amenities, and proximity to various parts of Somerville to unpack what makes residents more or less satisfied.

As the NY Times observes: “Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire. “

See “How Happy Are You? A Census Wants to Know” (NY Times, 4/30/11 by John Tierney)

See Somerville’s voluntary “Wellbeing and Community Survey

See “Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?” (CS Monitor, 4/4/11 by Mary Helen Miller)

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).

Praying alone is no fun; having friends at church makes you happier

Flickr photo by Shavar Ross

[Also cross-posted on the American Grace Blog]
American Grace research team members Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam have an article in the prestigious American Sociological Review demonstrating that religion actually makes you happier and it works through having close friends at church.

“Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Listening to sermons or praying is not enough.  In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient that makes people happier.”

A host of studies have found a correlation between happiness and religiosity, but they suffered from the vulnerabilities of any single shot survey. Was religiosity truly causing happiness, was happiness causing greater religiosity, or was some third factor responsible (say an extroverted gene that made people both happier and more likely to go to “church”)? With the large nationally representative Faith Matters surveys, which interviewed the same Americans twice in a 6-9 month period, Lim and Putnam demonstrate that increased church attendance over that 6-9 month period increases life satisfaction. Surprisingly, they find that more overtly religious factors like theology (e.g., belief about the type of God or the afterlife or what religion you belong to) and private religious practices (e.g., experiencing God’s presence in your life or saying Grace or frequency of prayer) did not predict greater life satisfaction.

So what explained the power of religious attendance? Lim and Putnam found that it was having close friends in one’s house of worship. While friends in general cause people to have greater life satisfaction, friends at church serve as “super-charged” friends, with an even stronger impact on life satisfaction than secular friends.

It’s not clear exactly why close friends at church have such strong power. Lim and Putnam speculate that these church friends anchor “a strong sense of belonging in these religious communities” and provide parishioners with “morally-infused social support. In other words, if one seeks life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities alone that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems better than either bowling together or praying alone. These findings suggest that religious leaders should invest more of their time, treasure and talent in deepening the social dimensions of congregational life, such as through small support or worship groups, potlucks and choirs. This is likely to pay dividends to their congregants in making them happier and also benefit the religious leaders by making their congregants more likely to stay active religious members.”

Specifically, they find that those who attend church sporadically but nonetheless have close friends at church, likely working through religious spouses, are quite high in life satisfaction whereas those who attend church regularly but don’t have church friends are not. “According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives” (a 10 on the 1 to 10 question scale). “In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.”

Note: Putnam and Lim control for the all the natural demographic correlates that might be causing spurious findings.

The Faith Matters findings apply to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

It’s possible that there are other real-world secular examples of groups where in-group friendships provide the same level of ‘morally-infused” social support: e.g., 12-step programs, or zealous environmental activist networks, or uncorrupted unions, or MADD. Since these findings are relatively new, we haven’t firmly tested to find secular equivalents of these morally-infused networks although it is clear that there is nothing in the US that has anything like the frequency of friends of church, since so many more Americans are in the pews on a Sunday than participating weekly in an environmental group or a 12-step program. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron has made clear to us in conversations, given much lower levels of religiosity in that country, that he is actively interested in finding out if there are secular takeaways from these life satisfaction findings that could be applied in the UK without exhorting more Brits to attend and make friends at church; Cameron’s interest is also sparked by his recent decision to actively measure life satisfaction in the UK as a key indicator of how well government is doing.

We’ll also be doing some further testing in additional surveying we are doing to try to understand more about what makes “close friends at church” so powerful. We welcome your thoughts…

CNN notes: “it is worth examining in the future why this study did not find the same link between happiness and spirituality that others did, the authors say. This may have to do with how different aspects of religion are measured. For example, those who reported that they ‘feel God’s love’ seemed to have more life satisfaction than those who did not, but this did not apply for similar questions about belief in God. Also, it is impossible to draw conclusions about whether ‘feeling God’s love’ causes happiness or vice versa. Could other networks of people have the same effect on happiness? The authors say that if this is possible, it’s hard to think of a non-religious context with a similar strength of identity, intensity of participation in ritual, and great scale and scope of the people in it.”

Cite: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review, 75(6), December 2010.

Beyond CNN, see news stories in USA TodayNational Post, Discovery, Live Science, Science News, TIMES of India, Montreal Gazette, and Daily Mail.

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

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.]