Sunday, September 27, 2015

How good is life satisfaction as a measure of psychological flourishing?

In recent years psychologists have adopted a number of somewhat different approaches to measuring psychological flourishing. This is not an area in which I can claim much expertise, but that will not stop me from writing about it. The question of what it means for a human to flourish is one that everyone should be encouraged to consider for themselves.

The definition of flourishing adopted by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So in their article ‘Flourishing Across Europe’ (published in Soc.Indic.Res. in 2013) viewed it as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to depression and anxiety. The authors identified 10 features of positive well-being by examining internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety (DSM and ICD) and defining the opposite of each symptom. The 10 symptoms of flourishing identified were: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality.

A measure of flourishing was developed from responses to questions included in the European Social Survey. Indicators used were as follows:
  • Competence: Most days I feel a sense of accomplishment from what I do;
  • Emotional stability: (In the past week) I felt calm and peaceful;
  • Engagement: I love learning new things;
  • Meaning: I generally feel that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile;
  • Optimism: I am always optimistic about my future;
  • Positive emotion: Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?
  • Positive relationships: There are people in my life who really care about me;
  • Resilience: When things go wrong in my life it generally takes me a long time to get back to normal (reverse score);
  • Self-esteem: In general, I feel very positive about myself;
  • Vitality: (In the past week) I had a lot of energy.

I would have liked to see autonomy included in this list. Adult humans can hardly be said to be flourishing if they do not exercise their potential to organize their own lives. The authors argue against including autonomy on the grounds that its opposite is not specified in the DSM and ICD. It is difficult to accept that mental health professionals do not view failure to become or remain an autonomous individual as a mental disorder. Various problems in self-direction seem to be recognized as associated with personality disorders in DSM-5.

Leaving as aside my views about their failure to incorporate autonomy in their measure of flourishing, one of the attractive features of the approach adopted by Huppert and So is that it does not pretend to provide a comprehensive measure of human flourishing. It relates specifically to the psychological aspects of individual human flourishing and doesn’t pretend to encompass physical health, wealth, practical wisdom etc.

One interesting feature of the results of the study using data from a sample of 43,000 Europeans was that the individuals identified as flourishing did not correspond very closely to those identified as having high life satisfaction. For Europe as a whole, the percentage who were both flourishing and had high life satisfaction was 7.3%. Among people who met the criterion for flourishing, 46.0% had high life satisfaction, and among people who had high life satisfaction, 38.7% were flourishing. (The correlation between life satisfaction and flourishing was only 0.34.) The authors conclude:
“Clearly, flourishing and life satisfaction are overlapping but distinct concepts, and a great deal would be lost by measuring life satisfaction alone, although there is frequently pressure in large scale surveys to do so.”

However, the ranking of European countries according to the estimated percentage of the population who are flourishing seems fairly consistent with the rankings obtained using life satisfaction. In in order to compare the ratings with a similar measure based on life satisfaction, I have used the Gallup organisation's data on “thriving” covering a similar time period. Gallup uses the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale to measure life satisfaction by asking respondents to place the status of their lives on a "ladder" scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where 0 indicates the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life. Individuals are classified as thriving if they rate their current lives a "7" or higher and their future lives at "8" or higher. The relationship between the estimated percentages “flourishing” and “thriving” is shown in the graph below.

It seems clear from the graph that it doesn’t matter a great deal whether you use indicators of psychological health or life satisfaction to compare the psychological well-being of people in different countries. (At a national level the correlation between flourishing and thriving is 0.87.) The errors in using life satisfaction as an indicator of flourishing that are evident at an individual level tend to cancel out in aggregating to a national level.

What this means, I think, is that if you want to know about an individual’s psychological well-being, measures of life satisfaction are a poor indicator. However, if you are looking for a summary indicator of psychological well-being at a national or regional level, life satisfaction might be good enough.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Do major cities create unhappy Australians?

Sydney's eastern suburbs
Major cities create unhappy Australians. That headline jumped out at me when I was doing an internet search recently. The source was The Melbourne Newsroom – a media unit at the University of Melbourne. The news release tells us that Australians who live in rural locations or towns of less than 1,000 residents “have significantly higher life satisfaction than those living in major cities”. (Major cities have more than 100,000 residents.)

The news release is linked to a recent publication based on the highly regarded HILDA survey undertaken by Melbourne University. The survey results suggest a boost to average life satisfaction (on the 11 point scale from 0 to 10) of 0.127 points for females and 0.108 points for males from living in a rural location or town rather than a major city. That might seem small, but it appears to imply that living in a major city has an adverse impact on life satisfaction of similar magnitude to being unemployed or divorced.

The authors of the HILDA publication conclude:
“other things being equal, the major cities are the least desirable places to live”.

The qualification in that statement is important. The authors go on to point out that the undesirability of living in cities is somewhat counteracted by the fact that the major cities contain areas of greatest socio-economic advantage.  Life satisfaction is influenced by the effects of the relative socio-economic advantage or disadvantage of the area in which an individual lives.

The main reason I was sceptical when I read the headline “Major cities create unhappy Australians” was because earlier in the day I had read a paper by Arthur Grimes and Marc Reinhardt which found that the differences between life satisfaction in rural and urban areas in other high-income OECD countries disappeared in a model controlling for other variables. The other variables controlled for were own income and reference income (mean income within a country of individuals of the same gender, age and employment status).

A study examining differences between life satisfaction of rural and urban residents of Victoria, undertaken a decade ago by Dianne Vella-Brodrick et al, also found that the significance of rurality disappeared when other variables were controlled for. The other variables in the model included satisfaction with community and perceived level of satisfaction with distance from services.

In a post I wrote on this blog a few years ago I considered the differences at a regional level between the stories told by a range of wellbeing indicators in Victoria. The (rural) local government areas (LGAs) with higher average subjective well-being (SWB) also tended to have higher ratings in terms of satisfaction with being part of the community, social support (ability to get help from friends), citizen engagement (e.g. attending town meetings, writing to politicians), safety (e.g. feeling safe walking in the local area at night) and volunteering. However, those LGAs tended to have lower household income, lower satisfaction with work-life balance and less acceptance of diverse cultures. The latter variables tended to have higher values in Melbourne and in LGAs close to Melbourne.

Do those results suggest major cities create unhappy Australians? I don’t think so. As discussed in a more recent post, major cities in Australia are ranked among the most liveable in the world. People who choose to live in major cities may well do so for good reasons, in full knowledge that they are making choices that are likely to reduce their life satisfaction. Life satisfaction is important, but it is not the only argument in individuals’ utility functions. For example, it can be rational for people to sacrifice some life satisfaction now to obtain more life satisfaction later (e.g. by accumulating wealth to fund their retirement in a more pleasant location). There is also some evidence that many people are prepared to sacrifice their own happiness in making location choices in order to provide better opportunities for their children.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

How close is the relationship between freedom and life satisfaction?

I would be happy to declare myself a fan of the OECD’s Better Life index if it included an appropriate indicator of freedom. Perhaps the authors might argue that freedom is adequately covered by “civic engagement”. However, that seems like arguing that it is not possible for people to suffer persecution from government when they have the right to vote. I don’t think J S Mill would have been impressed:
“The limitation … of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein” (On Liberty, Chapter I).

Perhaps the authors of the index see freedom as a characteristic of the social environment that people desire because it enables them to have greater life satisfaction, rather than as one that contributes directly to the quality of life. I don’t buy that argument. Humans have a passion to control their own lives (even though many have no qualms in voting to have governments restrict the freedom of others). I predict that many users of the Better Life index would give a higher weight to individual freedom than to many of the other items included in the index, if they were given the opportunity to do so. (One of the features of the Better Life index is the ability of users to assign whatever weights they choose to the variables that are included in the index.)

It is possible, however, that freedom makes little difference to country rankings. That might happen if freedom indexes are highly correlated with life satisfaction. I am focusing attention here on the relationship between freedom and life satisfaction because most of the 11 components of the OECD’s Better Life Index are correlated with life satisfaction. Civic engagement is one of the exceptions. The others are education, safety and work-life balance.

The freedom indexes I have chosen to consider are the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom and personal freedom indexes. Both of those indexes are highly correlated with life satisfaction (r = 0.73 for personal freedom and r = 0.61) in OECD countries. A regression analysis shows both variables to have a positive (significantly greater than zero) influence on life satisfaction, together explaining 68% of the variation in life satisfaction among OECD countries. (The data and results are available from the author.)

The relationships between life satisfaction and the two freedom indexes are shown in the charts below.

There seems to have been a fairly strong tendency for people who argue that government policies should be directed toward raising average life satisfaction to advocate policies involving restrictions on freedom. Such people have been barking up the wrong tree. The countries with highest average life satisfaction are those with the least restrictions on economic and personal freedom.

 I neglected to refer to a recent article by Boris Nikolaev entitled "Economic Freedom and the Quality of Life". This article provides a fairly extensive discussion of the relationship between economic freedom and the quality of life at a national level. 


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Which countries have the greatest personal and economic freedom these days?

The results of the latest Human Freedom Index by Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik (published by the Fraser Institute and several other policy think tanks) have surprised some people.

Among the social media comments was one from a person who had lived in several different parts of the world who was surprised that Scandinavian countries ranked so highly in terms of personal freedom. (Sorry, I can’t find the link.) I wasn’t surprised to see Hong Kong in first place in the overall freedom ranking, since the methodology gives equal weight to economic freedom and personal freedom and does not include voting rights as a component of personal freedom. It was a surprise, however, to see the United States ranked so lowly, in 20th place overall and in 31st place in terms of personal freedom.

In order to better comprehend the rankings of particular countries I have used conditional formatting  to prepare the table below showing the components of personal freedom and economic freedom ratings for the 50 countries assessed to have the highest overall freedom ratings. For each component index green denotes a relatively high rating, yellow a moderate rating and red a relatively low rating.

It seems that the US has a relatively low rating on rule of law and freedom of movement.  The US ratings on the three components of the rule of law index - procedural justice, civil justice and criminal justice – are all rated as more than 20% below the world’s best practice. (Data are from the World Justice Project, an independent non-profit organization, originally founded in 2006 as a presidential initiative of the American Bar Association.) The US’s low rating on freedom of movement is attributable to restrictions on foreign movement i.e. freedom of citizens to leave and return to their country. (Data are from the CIRI Human Rights Data Project.)

Another surprising item highlighted in the table is the relatively low rating of New Zealand on freedom of religion. This low rating apparently reflects some kind of restriction on freedom to establish religious organisations.

The relationship between economic freedom and personal freedom is interesting. The chart shown below suggests a fairly strong correlation, but there are some interesting outliers.  

It seems to me that economic freedom and personal freedom are so strongly linked that it is inherently difficult to maintain high economic freedom without high personal freedom and vice versa. It is reasonable to predict that Singapore’s high level of economic freedom will continue to support relatively high economic growth, which in turn will support the development of emancipative values and greater personal freedom in the decades ahead. In the case of Slovenia and Italy I am not sure whether we are more likely to see a rise in economic freedom or a decline in personal freedom.