Thursday, November 8, 2012

Can happiness surveys help us to measure progress?

I have written about similar questions here before, but I’m not sure that I managed to get the message across to many people. The issues are not all that complex. I probably just need more practice in trying to explain them in simple terms.

The most obvious way to use happiness surveys to measure progress would be to use such surveys to measure average life satisfaction at different times and then observe to what extent it has risen or fallen.

Where is the problem in that? The main problem is that as a result of changing reference norms people who value an expansion of economic opportunities cannot necessarily be expected to show rising satisfaction with their lives in successive surveys.

What do I mean by changing reference norms? When we are asked to rate our satisfaction with life we do so relative to reference norms, such as by comparing our standard of living with that of people we know. Some surveys ask people to rate their lives relative to ‘the best possible life’, but our perceptions of ‘the best possible life’ may also change. For example, education may cause people to expand their horizons so they become less satisfied with a modest standard of living. The same kind of thing can happen when people move from rural to urban areas or obtain access to TV and the internet.  

So, if education tends to make people less satisfied with a modest standard of living, does that mean that they do not value the opportunities that education provides? It obviously doesn’t. Some people make large sacrifices to obtain educational opportunities, so it would be difficult to argue that they don’t value them.

The same reasoning applies to the benefits of technological progress. No-one could expect that people living in 1950 could have felt unhappy or dissatisfied - or sad, or angry even - because they did own personal computers or any of the numerous other amenities of modern life that had not then been invented.

The fact that we do not feel dissatisfied that we do not yet possess the products of future technological progress does not mean that such products will not enhance our future wellbeing and that of our descendants. It just means that we are fortunate to have emotional systems that enable us to give a high rating to our current lives if we can attain a standard of living that is somewhere near the upper bound of what it is currently possible for humans to attain.

Changing reference norms help our emotional system to adapt to changes in external circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow them to bias our judgements about changes in the quality of our lives.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, unwittingly provided a good example of the distorted perception that can arise when we ignore changing reference norms when he wrote:
‘As Americans adapt and yesterday’s luxuries turn into today’s necessities, people are naturally unwilling to give them up, but that does not mean that they are any happier than they were before the process began. Neither does it suggest that the products they yearn for in future will bring them any greater pleasure. What then is the justification for future economic growth?’ See: ‘The Politics of Happiness’, 2010, p 67.

The fallacy in that argument becomes obvious if it is applied to advances in medical science. Does the fact that people in high-income countries have adapted to advances such as the development of antibiotics, and now tend to view them as a normal part of life, mean that such advances have no value? In deciding whether or not we would be happier without advances in medical science, or any other product of technological change, the pertinent question to ask is whether we are obtaining a net benefit from it now. Adaptation may cause us to take for granted the benefits of technological progress, but it is our judgement of where our interests lie that makes us unwilling to give up the those benefits.

One way to eliminate the possible impact of changing reference norms is to ask survey participants to rate their lives at some point in the past (for example, five years ago) at the same time as they are asked to rate their current lives. Responses to such questions enable levels of individual flourishing to be gauged against historical benchmarks to show to what extent people feel that their lives have improved over time. My analysis of such data collected by the World Gallup Poll suggests that people tend to perceive the greatest improvement in their lives over the previous five years in countries where a high percentage of people consider that the national economy is ‘getting better’ and where rates of economic growth have been relatively high.*

Happiness surveys can help us to measure progress if they are used in the right way.

*The estimated regression equation is as follows:

LIFETODAY = -0.330 + 1.003*PASTLIFE + 0.015*ECONOMY + 0.037*GROWTH + 0.299*IMPGOV
                       0.290)  (0.044)                     (0.003)                      (0.017)                    (0.243)

Adjusted R2 = 0.84. The figures in brackets are standard errors of the estimated coefficients.
102 countries were included in the analysis.

LIFETODAY is the average rating ‘life today’ from the Gallup World Poll (around 2008) which asks respondents to rate their current lives on a ladder scale with the ‘best possible life’ as the top rung.
PASTLIFE is the average rating of ‘life five years ago’ from the Gallup World Poll.
ECONOMY is percentage of participants in the Gallup World Poll who perceive that economic conditions in their country are getting better.
GROWTH is the estimated rate of growth in per capita GDP (rgdpl) from Penn World Tables over the preceding five years (2002-07).
IMPGOV is the improvement over the period 2002-07 in the average of the six World Bank Governance Indicators.

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