Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why are the French so unhappy?

It is well known that people in France tend to rate their happiness and life satisfaction lower than other people with comparable living standards. Until recently I thought that might just reflect a tendency to get pleasure out of pretending to be grumpy. After all, the French know all about joie de vivre, don’t they?

However, after reading an article on the topic by Claudia Senik I think there might be some deeper cultural factors at work.

The tendency for the French to be unhappy is not just superficial. It is associated with relatively high scores in negative dimensions of mental health and exceptionally high consumption of psychotropic drugs. And it has been observed at least since the early 1970s. 

The author attempted to disentangle the influence of circumstances (such as institutions, regulations and general living conditions) and the influence of mentality (attitudes, beliefs, ideals and ways of apprehending reality that individuals acquire during infancy and schooling). She did this by using survey data to examine differences between the happiness of different categories of migrants. Her main finding was that immigrants of the first generation who had attended school in France before the age of 10 were less happy, other things equal, than those who had not.

The results of the study seem to suggest that there is something associated with attending school in France that tends to make people less happy than they would otherwise be. The author has speculated that one factor that might be involved is the competitive nature of the education system in France.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at World Values Survey data on desired child qualities on the grounds that the values inculcated via education systems might reflect the values of the broader population. The latest data available for France is from the 2005-09 round of surveys. The specific question is:
“Here is a list of qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home. Which, if any, do you consider to be especially important? Please choose up to five”. Unfortunately, none of the qualities listed relate specifically to ambition or scholastic attainment.

Some of the qualities for which responses of French people seem differ substantially from those of people in other countries are shown in the following Figures.

The Figures do not shed a great deal of light on the issue. It is interesting, nevertheless, that the French tend to attach great importance to children learning the virtue of hard work and tend to give relatively low priority to independence and imagination. Perhaps there is something wrong with my perception that life in France is characterized by enjoyment of leisure, and free expression of individuality and creativity.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What makes people grumpy about life in Australia?

Most people who live in Australia seem to be highly satisfied with life in this country. Data from the 2013 AQOL Australian Unity wellbeing survey suggests that 75 percent of people give life in Australia a grade of 8/10 or above. Less than 4 percent of people give life in Australia a grade of less than 5/10.

Most of the people who give Australia a rating of less than 8/10 are not particularly grumpy, but there are some questions worth trying to answer about what makes them less satisfied than the rest. Are they particularly grumpy about some aspects of life in Australia, or are they less than satisfied with several different aspects? Are they grumpy because they enjoy grumping, or are they unhappy people? If they are unhappy, is this related to their personal circumstances?

In this post I use the survey data to compare the characteristics of the lower quartile – the 25 percent who gave life in Australia a grade of 7/10 or less - with the remaining 75 percent of the population.

I was pleased to discover that the lower quartile is not comprised disproportionately of grumpy old men. On average, the  age and sex of those who gave a relatively low rating to life in Australia was much the same as for the remainder of the population.

 Figure 1 suggests that those who are grumpy with life in Australia are somewhat more inclined to give any aspect of life in this country a failing grade (less than 5/10) than are the remainder of the population. They were most grumpy about government, but they shared that attitude with many people who were satisfied with life in Australia. (The survey was conducted in August 2013, not long before a Federal election which resulted in a change of government.) In proportionate terms, people in the bottom quartile were most grumpy about social conditions, the economy and national security.

As might be expected, Figure 2 suggests those in the lower quartile are more likely than the remainder to be grumpy with more than one aspect of life in Australia. Nevertheless, multiple grumpiness is not particularly common, even among people in the lower quartile. Only a tiny percentage of the population are grumpy about all aspects of life in this country.

Figure 3 suggests that people who are relatively dissatisfied with life in Australia tend to have lower satisfaction with their own lives. There do not seem to be many people who get a lot of personal satisfaction from being grumpy about life in Australia.

The people who are relatively dissatisfied with life in Australia cannot generally be characterized as being grumpy because they are particularly dissatisfied with personal relationships or health. Figure 4 suggests that they are more likely to be particularly dissatisfied with their future security and standard of living. They are also more likely to feel unsatisfied with the community in which they live. (The relevant question is: “How satisfied are you with feeling part of your community?”)

The general picture that emerges is that the people who are less satisfied with life in Australia tend to be particularly grumpy about the way social and economic conditions are impacting on their personal lives. Perhaps many of them are disappointed because their expectations of economic security and community support are not being met.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Does intention exist in the universe as an invisible field of energy?

I decided to revisit Wayne Dyer’s book, The Power of Intention after a friend made some enthusiastic comments to me about it. I told her that I didn’t share her enthusiasm, but I couldn’t remember why I had misgivings about the book.

The existence of intention as an invisible field of energy in the universe is, of course, not capable of being proved or disproved using conventional scientific methods. That is itself not a reason for rejecting such beliefs. If someone tells me that they feel empowered by the belief that they are serving God, I am inclined to feel happy for them. I certainly have no basis on which to claim that belief is wrong – even if I wanted to.

However, it is reasonable to question whether a person’s beliefs about intention are consistent with other beliefs that they hold.

Wayne Dyer acknowledges that his belief that intention is an all-pervasive universal force is not consistent with his belief that individuals have free will. He refers to this as a paradox and suggests that you can live with it, just as you live with the “paradox” that “you’re a body with beginnings and ends, with boundaries, and a definition in time and space, you’re also an invisible, formless, unlimited, thinking and feeling being”.

Is there a paradox involved in thinking of yourself as an entity with particular bodily characteristics, whilst also thinking of yourself as an entity which manifests a range of qualities such as kindness, boldness and wisdom? I don’t think so.

Moreover, it is difficult to see why a prior commitment to live with paradox would be necessary if intention is the all-pervasive universal force that Wayne Dyer claims it to be. Would such a force require us to disrespect the intellectual resources that it has bestowed upon us by making a prior commitment to live with inconsistencies in our belief systems? If we are seeking serve something more important than our own personal interests would Intention not be able to find a way to make itself known to us? Is it necessary to acknowledge the existence of a paradox, or mystery, before one’s intuitions can even begin to suggest that the sense of purpose one feels might be linked to a supernatural source?

The author claims that Intention has seven faces. His discussion of the first six of those intentional frames may be useful to people interested in developing a stronger sense of purpose:
  1. Creativity: “Creative energy is a part of you …”. My interpretation is that being creative is a fundamental characteristic of humans. It makes sense to have an intention to use our creative energy to produce better outcomes in all that we do.
  2. Kindness: “Kindness extended, received, or observed beneficially impacts the physical health and feelings of everyone involved”.
  3. Love: “This face of intention … wishes only for us to flourish and grow, and become all that we are capable of becoming”. An intention to help others to flourish and grow makes sense if we want to experience the benefits of living in loving families and communities.
  4. Beauty: “By choosing to hang on to one’s corner of freedom even in the worst situations, we can process our world with the energy of appreciation and beauty and create an opportunity to transcend our circumstances”. That statement was inspired by the example and views of Viktor Frankl.
  5. Expansion: “The elemental nature of life is to increase and seek more and more expression”. I think that means that an intention to achieve personal growth can always be achieved through greater expression of creativity, kindness, love and appreciation of beauty.
  6. Abundance: “there are no limits to our potential as people, as collective entities, and as individuals”. I don’t pretend to be a fan of “The Secret” or even “The Power of Positive Thinking”. It is my understanding of economics that suggests to me that the world offers abundance, provided that individuals are free to use their resources as they choose to take advantage of the opportunities available. A realistic optimist could be expected to have the intention to seek out opportunities and make good use of his or her personal resources.

According to Wayne Dyer, the seventh face of intention is receptivity.  He explains: “The receptive face of intention means to me that all of nature is waiting to be called into action. We only need to recognize and receive. … By being receptive, I’m in harmony with the power of intention of the universal creative force”.

I can understand why people are attracted to the idea that whatever seems wrong in their lives is the result of being out of alignment with Intention. It offers the promise of a remedy for all ills. As the author writes:
Act as if anything you desire is already here. Believe that all you seek, you’ve already received, that it exists in spirit, and know you shall have your desires filled”.

I know that this kind of positive thinking can sometimes be helpful. The problem is not so much that we are likely to act as though we can fly by flapping our arms, or live without food – although some do – it is in knowing how to deal with the negative thoughts that intrude when positive thinking fails to produce the outcomes we hope for. Wayne Dyer suggests:
Even when nothing seems to indicate that you’re accomplishing what you desire in your life, refuse to entertain doubt. Remember, the trolley strap of intention is waiting for you to float up and be carried along”.

Visual imagery can help to remind us of commitments that we have made to ourselves. The  message is clear enough. If you don’t achieve the outcome you hope for, you have not been trying hard enough to align yourself to Intention. Keep your thinking under constant surveillance. If that makes you feel unhappy, try even harder to align yourself to Intention. If you think you are going crazy, try even harder to align yourself to Intention.

I now remember why I had misgivings about the book.

It seems to me that the important ingredient missing from Wayne Dyer’s book is self- acceptance. In order to transcend something it is necessary to accept it. It is difficult to see how anyone can sustain intentions consistent with creativity, kindness, love, beauty, personal growth and abundance if they reject the sensations and emotions they experience. Rather than seeking to call nature into action to serve our intentions, we should be seeking to live in harmony with the natural world, including our natural selves.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Do our life stories make us all communitarians?

Front CoverBefore I read Michael Sandel’s book, Justice: What’s the right thing to do?, I hadn’t realised that I was once a Kantian. That was before I became a utilitarian, libertarian and then classical liberal. Sandel hasn’t persuaded me to become a communitarian, but he has challenged me to think some more about just conduct and limits to individual freedom.

Communitarians argue that we can’t reason about justice by abstracting from, or setting setting aside, our personal aims and attachments. For example, they seem to be saying that it is fruitless to ask ourselves what rules of society we would favour behind a veil of ignorance that made us unaware of our own personal circumstances.

The particular issue I want to focus on here is whether our perceptions of identity, based on our individual life stories, make us all communitarians. Sandel follows Alasdair MacIntyre in arguing that we can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’, if we can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’. In terms of this perception, moral deliberation is more about interpreting your life story than exerting your will.

I see no problem in going down that  path. It seems to me to be appropriate to think about personal morality in terms of life stories and personal identity. That approach is consistent with the following views previously supported on this blog:
  • Jonathan Haidt’s view that hiving comes naturally, easily and joyfully to humans, and serves the function of bonding individuals together into communities of trust, cooperation, and even love;
  • the identity economics of George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton which suggests that people gain utility when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity (or social category e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) and lose utility when they do not; and
  • the social intuitionist view of Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund that moral beliefs and motivations come from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop and that these intuitions then enable and constrain the social construction of virtues and values.

So, where do I part company with Michael Sandel? I leave him at the point he proposes that governments should use coercion in an attempt to strengthen a sense of community. For example, he proposed increased taxes on the wealthy “to rebuild public institutions and services so that rich and poor alike would want to take advantage of them”. He puts that forward as a remedy for a perceived problem arising from the growing inequality: a tendency for rich and poor to live separate lives, which tends to undermine the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires.

I am prepared to accept that some coercion is necessary to oblige all citizens meet obligations that are imposed on them according to democratic processes that are supported by the vast majority. The democratic system would break down if individuals were permitted to choose to disobey laws without incurring a penalty. The legitimacy of the system is enhanced by rules that enable people who do not like existing processes to propose constitutional changes, or to seek some other country to live that has a system of government that is more to their liking.

However, respect for the system of government is not enhanced by forcing people to fund facilities that they would prefer not to use. Such action is more likely to fragment a community than to promote social cohesion. When wealthy people have the option to escape high taxes by moving their business activities to a different jurisdiction, they often choose to do so. Some even change their country of residence.

More fundamentally, I think Sandel under-estimates the ability of individuals to set aside their own personal circumstances and interests when considering issues such as the provision of a social safety net, funding of public services, and taxation of wealth. Steven Pinker is probably correct in the view he expressed, in The Better Angels of our Nature, (discussed here) that an "escalator of reason" has provided a basis for taking intuitive moral foundations beyond family and tribal loyalties as education levels have risen and skills in abstract reasoning have improved.

The escalator of reason involves ascending to the vantage point of an impartial spectator (i.e. detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint). Pinker argues that a value system in which human flourishing is the ultimate good can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation.

As I have previously argued, rather than seeking to promote community solidarity through coercive means we should be seeking to reinforce voluntary social cooperation.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why am I interested in happiness research?

“THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir - peremptorily Thomas - Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind - no, sir!
In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general.” Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Chapter2.

I'm not like that. However, an interest in happiness research may seem to many people to imply an obsession with measuring, calculating and attempting to understand things that are not meant to be understood. 

Perhaps trying to understand what makes people happy is a bit like trying to understand why jokes are funny. It isn’t obvious that an understanding of what makes jokes funny would be much help to anyone in telling jokes, or how an understanding of what makes people happy would help anyone to become happier.

It is fairly easy to explain how I came to be interested in happiness research, so I will begin by writing about that. In my work as an economist I spent more than a few decades considering what government policies were likely to advance the well-being of the people in the countries where I have lived and worked (mainly Australia and New Zealand. It seemed fairly obvious that the vast majority of Australians and New Zealanders wanted higher incomes, so it was reasonable to assume that would improve their well-being. If someone questioned whether higher incomes would make people any happier, my defence was that economists should be in the business of making it possible for people to have happier lives rather than advising them how to spend their money.

At the same time, I could not help becoming interested in the puzzle of why happiness surveys showed little or no increase in average happiness ratings in high income countries over several decades while average income levels rose substantially. This is of course Easterlin’s puzzle - named after the economist Richard Easterlin.

I stopped being puzzled once I understood that happiness surveys measure emotional well-being - a component of well-being rather than the whole package. There is no reason to expect the value that people place on physical health, education, housing and safety, among other things, to be fully reflected in measures of emotional well-being. 

Emotional well-being is strongly related to self-esteem, optimism and the feeling of being in control of one’s life – none of which would be expected to be strongly influenced by further increases in incomes in high-income countries.

It is true, of course, that when people see higher incomes as the pathway to emotional bliss they are unlikely to be satisfied with one pot of gold - even if they find the end of a rainbow. But most people seem to make sensible choices. They might seek a higher income if that is necessary to pursue objectives that they consider to be worthwhile. For many people, higher incomes are incidental to career objectives. There is no reason to expect people to stop trying to achieve more in life just because they are satisfied with their current standard of living.

It seems to me that if we are interested in measuring well-being, then the survey measures of happiness are just one of the items we should look at. I favour the approach taken by the OECD in its Better Life Index.

However, an indicator approach doesn’t give economists a value-free measure of well-being. It leaves open the question of what weights should be given to the various component indexes. The OECD leaves the value judgement in the hands of the users of its index. That is more appropriate than having researchers assign weights, but it would be good to see how weights might need to differ to reflects the different values of people in different parts of the world. In my view the Better Life Index should be accompanied by illustrative weights derived from a values survey.

So, one of the reasons why I am interested in happiness research is apparent from what I have written. Happiness research is relevant to measurement of human well-being and that is relevant to economic policy.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between freedom and flourishing. Do government restrictions on individual freedom – in the wars against drug taking, smoking, alcohol, obesity, overwork etc. - actually have the desired effect of enabling people to have happier lives? I don’t think so. The policies adopted by governments seem designed to make people less happy in an attempt to get them to adopt healthier lifestyles, but I don’t know where to find the evidence to prove it.

In any case, that is only part of the story. My interest in happiness research is not always closely related to government policy. Some of my recent posts have taken me into the relationship between life satisfaction and the incidence of negative emotional experience. I am not sure why I am interested in such matters. Nevertheless, it seems more satisfying than spending my time trying to understand what makes jokes funny.