Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What is the 'World Happiness Report'?

World Happiness ReportThe release of the UN’s ‘World Happiness Report’, edited (and to a large extent authored) by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, does not seem to have captured much media attention. I became aware of it only while looking for reports of the meeting on ‘Happiness and Well-being:  Defining a New Economic Paradigm’, which was held in New York early this month. My interest stems from my attendance at a preliminary meeting in Bhutan last year. I still don’t have much idea what happened in New York, but the ‘World Happiness Report’ deserves consideration.

The mainstream media apparently didn’t consider the ‘World Happiness Report’ to be particularly newsworthy. That is presumably because it doesn’t contain much information that is new. It is not news that people in wealthy countries tend to be happier than people in poor countries. It is not news that average levels of happiness are still fairly low in China despite substantial gains in income levels over the last couple of decades. (That makes it difficult for me to understand reports that the Chinese government has apparently made it difficult for people in China to obtain the report via the internet.)
The report consists of an introduction by Jeff Sachs and chapters on the state of world happiness, the causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications. The report also contains three case studies – one on measurement of Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, one on the work of the ONS in Britain and the other OECD proposals for measurement of subjective well-being.

The introduction sets the scene by arguing that the quest for happiness should be seen to be intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.  The author seems particularly concerned that economic growth will ‘undermine the Earth’s life support systems’: ‘In years or decades, conditions for life ‘may become dire in several fragile regions of the world.’ He is also concerned that economic growth is not making people happier: countries ‘achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to a new crisis of obesity, smoking, diabetes depression and the other ills of modern life’. He suggests that we can ‘protect the Earth while raising quality of life’ if we adopt ‘lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.’

In my view the picture painted in the introduction is exaggerated, in terms of both impacts of economic growth on the environment and human happiness. In broad terms, the regions where conditions for life are under threat are suffering from lack of economic growth, rather than too much of it. The regions where happiness levels are highest have had greatest economic growth.

It is tempting to dismiss the introduction as alarmist nonsense.  It provokes in me the same feelings as I get when religious fanatics try to tell me that the end of the world is nigh. Yet, I readily acknowledge that some aspects of human activity are impacting adversely on the environment and that many people who have the benefits of living in high-income countries do not make good use of the opportunities that modern life offers to them. My point is that the introduction is unlikely to persuade many people that the measurement of happiness is worth considering seriously.

The introduction raises in my mind the question of how measurement of happiness will induce people to change their lifestyles in ways that reduce environmental damage. Will this occur through a spontaneous change in culture or are we about to see a new wave of central planning to regulate individual lifestyles? Perhaps happiness research will provide evidence that individuals with a small environmental footprint tend to be happier, other things being equal. Such evidence might induce larger numbers of people to make substantial lifestyle changes spontaneously.  I would not be surprised to see such evidence emerge, but the possibility of obtaining it doesn’t seem to be discussed in this report.

I think there is reason to be concerned that we are about to see a new wave of central planning of individual lifestyles, linked to happiness measurement. I am not referring here to limited action by governments to change relative prices in order to reduce specific negative spillovers associated with economic growth e.g. through carbon taxes or trading schemes. My concern is about the manipulation of the tax and regulatory system in ways designed to counter any aspirations that people might have that are not immediately reflected in happiness or life satisfaction. The author of the introduction fuels my concerns by objecting to the view that ‘happiness is in the eye of the beholder, an individual’s choice, something to be pursued individually rather than a matter of national policy’. There are plenty of political players in most countries, who will be only too eager to use this report to support their efforts to try to make people happier by regulating their lives.

Will these government planners be successful in their efforts to use happiness data to make people happier? It seems to me that there are parallels here with the use of GDP in economic planning. Half a century ago economic planners had great hopes that national income measurement - then being standardized with United Nations involvement – would help them in their efforts to lift economic growth rates. The UN’s 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development (discussed on this blog a few weeks ago) must have provided economic planners with great comfort by supporting their efforts to raise GDP through economic planning.  In the end, GDP measurement has helped to show that the efforts of the economic planners were counter-productive. I would not be surprised if social planning to raise happiness levels eventually meets a similar fate.

Planners are faced with the challenge of evidence that individual freedom is important to life satisfaction.  On that basis, it seems reasonable to predict that people will tend to become increasingly discontented as social planners intensify their efforts to make them happier.

Unfortunately, the introduction to the report has side-tracked me from considering the main content. People who might be interested in my views on the other chapters have probably stopped reading already. In case anyone is still reading, however, I will add some brief comments.

For the most part, the report equates ‘happiness’ with subjective well-being. It focuses on subjective well-being measures based on questions about happiness and life satisfaction. The authors seem to have in mind that those two questions should form the basis of happiness measurement systems. (The Bhutan case study is an exception. Objective measures of well-being are included in the measurement of GNH in Bhutan along with subjective measures.)

The report contains interesting information on the distribution of happiness in different countries as well as on average levels of happiness. The information on the distribution of happiness suggests to me that great caution is required in interpreting average happiness levels (whether mean, median or mode) as indicators of national happiness. This is particularly so in Latin American and African countries where inequality of happiness is relatively high.

The focus of the report on subjective well-being seems to me to be a weakness, despite its recognition that happiness measurement is part of a larger effort to understand well-being. This weakness is particularly evident when the report comes to making suggestions about policy priorities. It is apparent in that section that the authors were unable to confine themselves to findings arising from subjective well-being research. For example, the report states that a decent education for all is essential. Few would argue with that, but the research findings reported suggest that education makes a contribution to life satisfaction only through its effects on income.

In my view the methodology for measuring well-being should recognize all the factors that people consider to impinge on the opportunities available to them to live the kinds of lives they want to live. It seems likely that many people would consider education to affect those opportunities in ways that are not accounted for by either income or life satisfaction. Similarly, are other factors that contribute to the opportunities for people to live the lives they want to live, including health and the state of the environment, are probably not adequately accounted for by measures of subjective well-being.

Jim Belshaw has made the additional point, in the comments below and on his blog, that when you measure something there is a great temptation to focus on improving 'performance' as measured. Extending this reasoning, if happiness measures focus on contentment one might therefore expect government policies to focus to a greater extent on making people feel content - for example, by viewing ambition as a mental health problem and making medications freely available to treat it.


Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting post, Winton. It's all a liitle Orwellian.

Winton Bates said...

I am tempted to agree, Jim. I think the tone of the introduction is certainly excessively paternalistic.

The paradox is that happiness measurement seems to me to be generally benign. If the aim of the report is to sell happiness measurement, I can't understand why the authors would use such unattractive packaging.

Jim Belshaw said...

The problem to my mind is that when you measure something, there is a great temptation to focus on improving "performance" as measured. NAPLAN tests are an example. The statistic becomes the driver.

This is not an argument against measurement as such, but the way measurement is misused.

Winton Bates said...

Good point. That is the basis of the concern that some people have with GDP measurement. There was good reason for that concern when economic planning was popular. If I remember correctly that was why the Menzies Government had a somewhat negative response to the Vernon report and why Treasury subsequently produced a white paper pointing out the limitations of national income measurement.

The potential for policies to focus excessively on contentment makes it even more important in my view to have an array of measures of different aspects of well-being.

Jim Belshaw said...

You captured my point very will in your postscript, Winton. There is also an interesting parallel with discussion about the role of relogion in history. One school argues that relgion impeded progress because it made people more content with their lot.

Winton Bates said...

Hmm, the opium of the people?

I have also seen it argued that the orthodox Christian church tends to be anti-progress because it din't have a reformation.

Buddhism promotes equanimity. But I think we should count it as progress if people had a bit more of that - on the roads particularly!