Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do your political views make you unhappy?

In his book, “Gross National Happiness”, Arthur Brooks cites compelling evidence that Americans who label themselves as conservatives are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy as those who label themselves as liberals. This gap which has persisted for 35 years cannot be explained by income differences and apparently can only be explained in part by demographic factors such as religion and marriage.

As indicated previously (here) I am interested in the question of whether this finding also applies to other countries.

The gap between the happiness of those on the left and right of the political spectrum does not seem to be as large in Australia as in the United States. Data from the World Values Survey for 1995 (obtained by using the excellent facility available here to obtain cross-tabs online) suggest that those who self-positioned themselves on the left of the political spectrum in Australia (codes 1 to 4 on a 10 point scale) in that year were about 4 percentage points less likely to report being satisfied with life than the rest of the population (75 percent rather than 79 percent).

However, there is some evidence that political views are associated with substantial impacts on the probability of happiness in many countries. A study that I have undertaken covering 69 countries involved calculating a political index and assessing to what extent this index was capable of explaining differences in the proportions of the populations were are satisfied with life. The political index was calculated for each country from published data on percentages who self-position themselves on the left (assigned a value of 1) centre (assigned a value of 2) and right (assigned a value of 3). The index values range from 1.5 to 2.6 with an average of 2.1. Multiple regression was used to explain the percentage who were satisfied with life in terms of this political index and two control variables (per capita income level and percentage who attend religious services once a month or more). (Data were for the year 2000 and have been sourced from “Human Beliefs and Values” by Ronald Inglehart et al.)

The results suggest that an increase of 0.1 in this political index ( e.g. from the level in Britain of 1.9 to 2.0 – the same as for Australia) would be associated with an increase in percentage of people satisfied with life of about 2 percentage points (i.e. an increase from 73 to 75 percent of people being satisfied with life - sufficient to halve the gap between Britain and Australia in the percentage of people who are satisfied with life).

What are the implications of the finding that people who self-position themselves on the left of politics tend to be less satisfied with life than other people. In one sense it is hardly surprising that lefties should profess to be less satisfied with life than others. After all, their dissatisfaction may provide a motive for them to propose radical change. At the same time, however, it seems likely that those who self-position themselves on the left may have beliefs and frames of mind that cause them to have different feelings about objective circumstances. In my next post I will look at some evidence about the effect of self-positioning on the political scale on responses to income inequality.

(Research presented on this blog – as on any other blog - should be viewed with more caution than peer-reviewed research presented in academic journals. For quality assurance purposes I am prepared to make detailed results of research available to anyone who wants them and the data available to anyone who wants to replicate studies.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Are people happier in countries where religious practice is stronger?

I have been wondering whether Arthur Brooks’ observation that Americans who regularly attend religious services tend to be substantially happier than those who don’t (see here) also applies to people in other countries.

Some Australian research supports the proposition that those who attend church regularly are happier than those who don't (see here). A search for other studies didn't reveal much, so I have done a little research myself.

If religious observance makes people happy we would expect there to be a higher percentage of happy people in countries with higher religious observance, other things equal. I think the most important “other thing” to control for here is income level. The question I want to consider is whether people in countries with comparable income levels have a higher probability of happiness if they have a higher level of religious observance.

In order to address this question I have used multiple regression to explain the percentage of people who are satisfied with life as a whole in terms of per capita income level and three measures of religious observance: % who attend religious services once a month or more frequently; % who say God is important in their lives; and % who derive comfort and support from religion. As might be expected, these three variables are highly correlated. (Data are for 72 countries for the year 2000 and have been sourced from “Human Beliefs and Values” by Ronald Inglehart et al.)

The regression analysis using each of these measures of religious observance in separate equations suggests that they all have a positive effect on the proportion of people who are satisfied with life in different countries. The results suggest, for example, that an increase in church attendance in Australia of 10 percentage points (from 25% to 35% attending once a month or more) would increase the percentage of people who are satisfied with life by 2 to 3 points, from 77 percent to 79 or 80 percent. (This is not peer-reviewed research , but I will make the detailed regression result available to anyone who wants them and the data available to anyone who wants to replicate the study.)

What are the implications of these results? Should non-believers start going to church in search of happiness? I doubt whether they would find it. Should the government make church attendance compulsory? No Kevin, I don’t think that would be a good idea.

Perhaps the most important implication is that those of us who have developed a secular orientation could gain something useful by trying to understand the pleasure that many religious people obtain from church attendance. The best account of this that I have read so far is by Jonathan Haidt:
For many people, one of the pleasures of going to church is the experience of collective elevation. People step outside of their everyday profane existence ... and come together with a community of like-hearted people who are also hoping to feel a “lift” from stories about Christ, virtuous people in the Bible, saints, or exemplary members of their own community. When this happens people find themselves overflowing with love, but it is not exactly the love that grows out of attachment relationships. That love has a specific object and it turns to pain when the object is gone. This love has no specific object; it is agape. It feels like a love of all humankind, and because humans find it hard to believe that something comes from nothing, it seems natural to attribute the love to Christ, or to the Holy Spirit moving within one’s own heart” (The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006, p 199).

That helps me to understand why about 60 percent of Americans go to church once a month or more.

Fortunately, regular attendance at a Christian church is not a necessary condition to experience this pleasure of elevation. Similar pleasures are offered by other religions. Non-believers can even obtain a similar feeling of elevation through the regular practice of meditation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What is gross about happiness?

I like Arthur Brooks’ book, “Gross National Happiness” (Basic Books, 2008).

However, the old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” seems to me to be particularly apt in the case of this book. I found the title so unappealing that I had actually decided not to read the book until I stumbled across a series of articles based on it, which the author has written in the Freakonomics section of the New York Times (here).

Before I attempt to say something constructive about the book I want to state my objections the title. It seems to me that the concept of gross national happiness is just a gimmick. It is a useful gimmick for a politician to use to make the point that some of the important things in life are not measured in gross national product. I can understand why the king of Bhutan, for example, could be attracted to making gross national happiness a national goal as a way of making this point. But I cannot understand why any serious researcher would want to use “gross national happiness” as a title for a book.

In what sense is happiness gross? In terms of national income accounting, “gross” means that depreciation of capital stock has not been deducted from national product: net national product equals gross national product minus depreciation. “Gross” has no corresponding meaning in relation to happiness research.

It seems to me that the idea of governments setting out to raise aggregate (or average) happiness is indeed gross, or crass, when it involves interference in the lives of people in order to make them happier. Fortunately, Arthur Brooks manages to distinguish the focus of his book from this concept. Brooks’ focus is based on the idea in the American Declaration of Independence that individuals have the right to pursue happiness. The question he asks is: “Are we improving as a nation in protecting and exercising our right to pursue happiness?” (p3).

However, I don’t think the purpose of the book is to address that question. What the book does – and does well - is to present the results of survey information for the United States on the relationship between happiness and a variety of factors: political views, religion, family values, security, economic achievement, inequality, unemployment and charitable giving.

Many of the findings in this book would be familiar to readers of the happiness literature. However, the findings about the relationships between happiness and politics seem novel, and in combination with the findings about religion and family values, give a great deal of food for thought:

  • Americans who label themselves as conservatives are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy as those who label themselves as liberals. This gap has persisted for 35 years and apparently cannot be explained in terms of income differences. Religion and marriage account for some but not all of this happiness gap. The author suggests (quoting columnist, George Will) that conservatives tend to view happiness as a project whereas liberals tend to view it as an entitlement.
  • Religious people (those attending church at least once a week) are about 20 percentage points more likely to say they are very happy than secular people (those who seldom or never attend church). The relationship between religion and happiness is common to all religions and has little to do with money, age, education, sex, family status or race.
  • Having children can be part of a happy lifestyle even though it lowers the probability of happiness by 6 or 7 percentage points. The percentage of married, religious, conservative people with kids who are very happy is 38 percentage points higher than the percentage of single, secular, liberal people without kids who are very happy. While secular liberals have stepped off the baby train, religious people are breeding profusely. You could even say they are flourishing.

I do not fully understand these findings and I wonder to what extent they hold in countries other than the United States. I will give further thought to this in later posts.

Meanwhile, I commend Arthur Brooks for bringing these findings to public attention.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

How much happiness do we get from freedom to travel?

This post is really just an excuse to write something about what I have been doing over the last few weeks.

I have been touring in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska by bus, train and cruise ship - and loving every minute of the experience.

What is it that makes this kind of activity so pleasant? The first thing that comes to mind is the scenery. We saw some truly magnificent scenery. I suppose anyone could see the same kind of thing by watching a TV program or doing an internet search. They might even get to see more of the wildlife than we saw without leaving the comfort of home. But the virtual experience is never as good as the real experience.

I will give you an example. As we were travelling between Lake Louise and Jasper our bus driver noticed a car stopped beside the road. He thought there might be something worth seeing and stopped the bus to let us have a look. That gave us the opportunity to see a couple of grizzlies in their natural environment and to take photos of them. It was just a matter of chance that these bears happened to be there when we passed by. I think all members of our tour group felt that we were privileged to have had that experience.

The second thing that comes to mind is travelling companions. It was great to have been able to share this touring experience with my wife and other people we knew, and to have had the opportunity to travel with a good bunch of people. Some other things that made the holiday pleasant included an excellent tour guide, the opportunity to stay in very comfortable hotels, fine food and professional organisation (by APT).

However, the most important thing that makes touring enjoyable has to be the novelty of the experience. As much as we enjoyed visiting the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, it is not likely that we will return. If we can afford to travel again, we will no doubt be looking for a new experience.