Tag 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

Intergenerational equity


Flickr Photo by Baloozer

David Willets, British MP and advisor on community issues to the British heir apparent David Cameron, has a nice piece in the February Prospect magazine called “The Spirit of Cooperation.”

He outlines some of the arguments in his forthcoming The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give it Back, a book rich with anecdotes and interesting examples of co-operation and social evolution.

Willets’ article highlights how humans are born to cooperate (“the selfish gene”), how these instincts are usually stronger for closer relatives, how cooperation does or doesn’t occur in Prisoner’s Dilemma Games, and even how we can evolve to reciprocal altruism as seen in World War I trenches with the Christmas Truce or snipers on both side  intentionally shooting to miss.

Willetts strives to figure out how to make such reciprocity flourish: the answer to Willetts is small-scale interactions among non-state institutions, and punishing defectors and bad actors.  The role for the state, per Willetts, is “drystone walling — where individual elements are held together by an overall structure” rather than the state  trying expressly to change social behavior.  He also knocks the Left for failing to realize the importance of early childhood experiences in families in developing reciprocity.

Willetts’ major fear is that Britain will become divided by age. “In the worry about the shift of resources from the increasingly workless working class to the increasingly unleisured leisure class” (as the Economist puts it), too many resources have been devoted to what in the US we refer to as Boomers and not enough to their children.

He advocates that we should ‘nudge’ behavior, and urge this Boomer generation to treat future generations generously, the way that past generations treated them.  He uses this notion of intergenerational equity to drive policy goals of cutting the deficit, spurring more inter-generational contact, raising the age for retirement and pensions, getting Boomers to bear their share of climate change.  He even alludes, by quoting a bumper sticker, to the fact that this might ultimately help Boomers themselves: “Be nice to your kids; they choose your nursing home.”

He advocates that David Cameron’s government, through its focus on social responsibility, enforce this inter-generational contract, even if some Conservatives don’t like the concept of a social contract.

For far too many in society, their inter-generational concerns are restricted to their children and grandchildren; Willetts, falling back on Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”, argues that we owe it to future generations (regardless of whether they are related to us or not) to start from a relatively equal position.  It’s an intriguing argument, although if we owe this intergenerational equity to strangers in our own country, why don’t we owe this equity to strangers in Zimbabwe or Sudan.  Why should a starting point be more equalized for British citizens, but still have them start out hundreds of times more advantaged than children in the most destitute places on earth.

Read the Prospect’s interesting “The Spirit of Cooperation” or read the Economist’s review of Willet’s’ new book.

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.