Category Archives: Science

What happiness looks like in our brain

One of the coolest gifs on the internet might answer one of the coolest questions: what does happiness look like?

Yes, you might imagine happiness could look like a smile on the face of a calm and relaxed person enjoying rays of sunlight in a beautiful park, or be expressed by excited cheers when their sport team wins. Ultimately, however, happiness is a biochemical experience, triggered by neurotransmitters. If we want to see what happiness really looks like, we’d have to observe the release of chemicals like serotonine, endorphine, dopamine, and oxytocins in the body.

The gif claims to show a molecule of a protein dragging a bag of endorphins inside the parietal cortex. The release of these endorphines results in… happiness!

"This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain's parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness."

“This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness.”

It’s a great gif, although the caption might cut a few a corners. In reality, it might be a slightly different molecule, it wouldn’t necessarily be in the brain, and the ‘bag’ at the back could also carry other chemicals than endorphines. At least, that’s the diagnose of the science communication blog Eastern blot. Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, it is an animation drawn up by an animator called John Liebler, and not a recording of what is going on below our skull.

So, what are the main chemicals associated with happiness?

  • Serotonine: a mood-booster, emitted when you feel valued or important
  • Dopamine: a chemical with many functions, among others released when you experience
  • Oxytocin: also duped the trust hormone, and emitted when feeling close contact. (Scholar Paul Zak recommends eight hugs per day to get your dose).
  • Endorphines: the star of the gif is emitted in response to pain and helps you persevere when facing a difficult task.

Would you take a pill of happiness?

One of the great things about the gif is that helps to give insight in the many ways you can look at happiness.

Usually I tend to write about the way that humans think about their own happiness, or even how governments or companies evaluate the happiness or quality of life of their citizens/staff. But to a biochemist, those views of happiness would likely be beyond the point. A biochemist might contribute to developing pills treating mental disorders. And indeed, if you were to be given pills that would help the release of the ‘right’ chemicals, our body would feel ‘happy’ – but would we, as individuals, be genuinely happy? Most likely not.

Either way, it is not easy to determine what our brain and our body experience as happiness. We can ask people, but the way we evaluate our happiness does not necessarily give the same result as measuring it. Barring a new innovation that would let us walk around with electrodes on our head measuring all kind of brain activity, it’s hard to know what happiness is really looking like. In the main time, we can fantasise, and enjoy the gif.

A practical study of happiness in Turkey

What does happiness look like in Turkey?

That’s the main question I dived in during a few days in Istanbul two weeks ago, as I spoke at a conference on Determining the Happiness Map.

At the conference, hosted by Tüses and Kadıköy municipality, I spoke alongside professor Erhan Dogan (Marmara University Istanbul), Ragnhild Bang Nes (Norwegian Public Health Institute and Oslo University), and Jochen Dallmer (University of Kassel).

Happiness in Turkey

It’s a funny idea to have researchers from cold Northern countries like Norway, Germany and Netherlands come to Turkey to speak about happiness. Many of our chats on happiness focused on the relevance of good weather, tasty food and the street life culture for happiness. While all of those are present in Mediterranean Istanbul, they’re not factors that North-West Europe is known for.

That factor highlighted one of the interesting elements we came to discuss: happiness and quality of life are not the same. While Turkey may have a warmer temperature and a Mediterranean cuisine on offer, some of the key features that contribute to quality of life are less prominent. Norwegians may or may not enjoy themselves more than Turks, but perform well on loads of factors that matter: high incomes, a strong collective social support mechanism, and personal freedom.

How much work do we need to do in life?

A few takeaways from the conference:

  • Turkey’s level has increased over the years. In the 2017 World Happiness Report, Turkey scored about 0.3 points higher (for 2014-2016, compared to 2005-2007). According to prof. Dogan, the factors of GDP and social support are most prominent in explaining the level of quality of life. In that matter, Turkey is quite similar to many other countries. To the contrary, only a relatively small part of the happiness level is explained by generosity. Correlation of course does not equal causation, and there is no direct causal relation, but nonetheless there might be a case to promote generosity!
  • In Norway, the qualify of life is high, resulting in a 1st spot in the World Happiness Report for 2017 (though it was overtaken by Finland in the 2018 edition). But that doesn’t mean all is well. According to Bang Nes, suicide rates in Norway stand at around 11 per 100,000, almost triple the 4 per 100,000 in Turkey. At the Public Health Institute where she works, efforts are made to better understand how people live longer and healthier lives. Better data on happiness and mental health are collected, in order to guide public policy.
  • My third fellow speaker, Jochen Dallmer, looked at the German public debate on quality of life, and especially the role of sustainability. His PhD research is about a complicated question. We know that we should change our lifestyles to get back in the boundaries of the single planet we have. Happiness now is often associated with hedonic pleasures. Could an ascetic lifestyle provide happiness? He also posed another very un-German question: how much work do we need to do in life? And finally, he spoke about the German quality of life data collection, which he felt mainly conveyed high quality/standards.

DSC03590

My own 20 minutes of fame: happiness in the Netherlands and Poland

  • Finally, my own 20 minutes of fame were dedicated to the development of happiness levels in Poland and the Netherlands over the last 25 years. Dutch happiness level stayed broadly stable, and slowly a more active public debate on well-being policies is emerging. Until the elections of this month, the municipality of Schagen had a Councillor for Happiness (with Finance as his primary portfolio). And similar to the Norwegian and German efforts, a new Broad Wellbeing Monitor mapping happiness is being shaped after a hesitant start.
  • Poland has seen massive transformations since the 1990s, and also the domain of happiness has not been left untouched. Even with social ineqaulity rising, happiness levels icnreased, likely in connection with tremendous economic growth. But also Poland shows awareness that there’s more than work and GDP. The Pracuję bo lubię (‘I work because I like it) project is one example taking happiness as inspiration.

And my own happiest moment in Turkey? A lost Sunday afternoon hour in company of old and new friends, spent basking in the sunlight with a view on the sea of Marmara.

DSC03648

What would a once-per-50-years newspaper say on happiness?

I recently came across a brief podcast by the US National Public Radio (NPR) with an intriguing question.

Some of us have quit reading the news, as the endless updates about conflicts, natural disasters, political in-fighting, and abuse scandals make us depressed. (Sports news could balance it down a bit though, depending whether your team wins or loses).

The news is about what is uncommon – hence it is news – and often these are bad developments. In a time of online news and push notifications, we can get ‘new’ news in the time it takes to load a few tweets. As a result, we are a lot better informed about conflicts and disasters in many places we otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. But it might also make us lose the big picture on what is going well in the world.

That’s why the NPR jumped on an idea of Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie. The two are affiliated with Oxford University, and run a number-lovers’ paradise: Our World In Data. They came up with the idea: what would a newspaper consider as headline news if it appeared only once per fifty years?

 

The 50-year newspaper

The newspaper the NPR and Our World In Data made appeared on 1 January 2018, exactly fifty years after the previous edition of 1968.

It contains some bad news…

  • Is It Just Me, Or Is It Hot In Here? (on climate change, as human-induced greenhouse gas emissions rocket)
  • Humans to Animals: Drop Dead! (on biodiversity loss; the number of terrestrial animals declined by 60%)

… but also shows some of the great progress made in the last fifty years:

  • Poor No More (on poverty, which feel from 60% to 10% of the world population)
  • Child Mortality Plummets (in 1968, 1 out of 6 children died before their fifth birthday. With healthcare improving, it now is 1 out of 22)
  • Blame It On The Grain (on undernourishment; the population share with hunger fell from about one third to 12%)

 

What about happiness?

But what would the headline on happiness be in the paper of January 2018?

Fifty years after 1968, these are the headlines the newspaper should run:

  • Have You Jumped Out The Rat Race Yet? (on the growing awareness of people that they are in charge of their own well-being, but that they need to make important and difficult life style choices to achieve it)
  • Emerging Economies Show Massive Happiness Gains (the progress in fighting poverty, child mortality, and undernourishment across developing countries comes with a happiness dividend)
  • Free At Last! (on the transition towards democracy and self-determination in many countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and former colonies)
  • Politicians and Bosses Say: Your Happiness Is My Command (on the growing attention for happiness and well-being as a policy issue for the state, and corporations increasing attention to happiness at work)
  • Materialism Out, Experiences In! (on the gradually changing habit of people to value and spend money on experiences such as trips or time with friends, and a lesser emphasis on consumer goods)

 

Bonus: what the 1968 papers actually said about happiness, referring to a creepily titled Beatles song.

american-rifleman-happiness-is-a-warm-gun_01-1

 

The unexpected ripe age of happiness

Life is a trap.

When you’re young, you’ve time and energy, but no money.

When you’re an adult, you’ve money and energy, but no time.

And in old age, you’ve finally have both money and time – but then your energy is gone.

At least, that’s how the online joke has it. Laughs aside, it also triggers an interesting question: what is the happiest stage of our life?

The age of happiness

The website Hospice End of Life Care is convinced there is. They collected data from various surveys (and kindly shared them in the neat infographic below!) showing that old age isn’t as gloomy as one might think. Beyond the cliches about lonely and depressed grandpa, the elderly often have lower levels of stress. They perform better on well-being indicators such as healthy eating and being energised from social contacts. And they’re even more confident about their looks!

One could cynically think: by the time you’re 70 or 80, you’re happy to be still around. Happiness scientists indeed are quite certain about the correlation of happiness and longevity. For instance, a 2015 study in the United States found that happy people tend to live longer. Compared to ‘very happy’ people, both people who consider themselves ‘pretty happy’ (+6%) and ‘not happy’ (+14%) had higher risks of death in the reference period.

Life expectancy is rising, and the share of the population above 65 grows ever larger. In the United States (15%, relatively low for the Western world), Germany (21%), and Japan (27%), over 65s represent an increasingly large share. So, the sample of over 65s grow and grow, and these figures are average across a wide range of values.

Are all older people happier?

It is not as simple as saying that all older people are happier everywhere around. In some geographies, that is indeed the case: people tend to be happy in their 20s, go down a bit in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, before picking up again in their 60s and 70s, resulting in a kind of U-shape.

Schermafbeelding 2017-12-03 om 20.13.44

However, their infographic at the end of the post uses American survey data. Globally, the US is a bit a different beast then many other countries. The World Happiness Report of 2015 studied the matter in some detail, as shown in the image just above. While the U-shape appears both across the North America and Australia/New Zealand (NANZ) region and East Asia, these are the exceptions worldwide.

In all other regions, happiness either stabilises at some point between people’s 30s and 50s, or continues to reduce. The reduction effect is strongest in the Central and Eastern Europe and former Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE & CIS in the graph).

Less stress and better rested

That, however, is not the full story. On some indicators for the positive emotions that underly happiness, older people seem to perform better, even where they are not among the happiest groups overall.

For instance, in many world regions they tend to smile and laugh more than other people. In old age, depression and especially stress levels fall far below their peak, around middle age. And in many regions, the elderly are among the best rested groups! Maybe those low energy levels are a just a myth, and we do have something to look forward to when growing older.

 The full infographic

HappinessIGFULLNOV

Does size matter: higher tax, happier countries?

One of the oldest questions in political philosophy is of course: does size matter? Or to phrase it more precisely for the aims of this blog, does the size of the state influence the level of happiness of its population?

There are two ways of looking at the questions. Firstly, does the size of population matter for the quality of life? And secondly, how large a role should the government play in society?

Small is beautiful

At least at the anecdotal level, the first question is relatively to answer. It appears that smaller countries, typically, have happier populations than larger ones. From a theoretical angle, that makes sense. If a country is smaller, it is more likely to have a more homogenous population, and people are more likely to feel close to each other. For instance, this would result in a better community life, one of the factors associated with happiness. A glance at the 2016 World Happiness Report shows that most of the top-ten countries are relatively small, with Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland in the top-three, and only Canada, Netherlands and Australia (numbers six, seven and nine) having a population above 10 million.

Schermafbeelding 2016-05-22 om 18.37.08

Father state makes you… happy?

There is a second way of looking at the question, though. Does the share that the government takes in the economy and society affect happiness levels? Is it the invasive Big Government or rather the freedom of the laissez faire night-watcher state that makes people best off?

A book by Benjamin Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness, suggests there are three ways of measuring state size when assessing the correlation: welfare spending; overall government spending; and taxation.

From a theoretic perspective, one could presume a link between government spending and happiness. For instance, welfare policies could be expected to provide the safety net to lower income and/or unemployed people, and therefore reduce inequality. Similarly, a large amount of government spending – for instance by providing free or subsidised education or healthcare – could result in higher happiness levels.

Indeed, the evidence assessed by Radcliff suggests this kind of link. His data shows that for one of the metrics, linked to welfare spending, countries scoring high on this indicator, happiness levels are above one point higher than low-scoring countries. He suggests that this contribution to happiness is double that of being married (being married is positively correlated with happiness), and three times the negative drag of unemployment. To give an example: if your baseline happiness is 7, living in a state with high spending would statistically increase your happiness to 8. Being unemployed would drag it down to 6,7. That’s the magnitude of the influence of the state size according to Radcliff’s evidence!

More tax, more happiness

Government spending doesn’t come for free. While taxation of citizens and companies isn’t the only source of income, it typically is the most significant one. Could it really be the case that being taxed more resulted in citizens being happier?

Again, the data suggest there is a correlation. Radcliff even states that “higher levels of taxation suggest higher levels of satisfaction with life”.

The graph here compares taxation levels (tax revenue as % of GDP) with happiness levels (life satisfaction), based on data from the OECD and the World Happiness Report quoted above. It shows an increasing trendline, associating a level of taxation of 20% in this group of OECD countries with a happiness level of around 6.5. All others thing equal, a level of 50% is correlated with a happiness level of around 6.8: some one thirds of a point higher across the trendline.

But not all others things are equal: the distribution is broad and the effects are very diverse. Denmark is on the top right with a happiness level of 7.526 and the very highest tax level of 50,9. On the far left, we find Switzerland with a marginally lower happiness level of 7.509 and only half the tax rate at 26.6%. On the lowest part of the graph, with happiness levels just above 5 points, we find Portugal, Greece and Hungary, with taxation levels around 34-38%.

tax vs happiness

 

Correlation, goes the warning to every first-year student, is not causation. The 34 countries of the OECD provide some interesting figures, but there are many other factors than taxation that determine happiness. Idiosyncratic factors and practical things like a state’s efficiency – what kind of society does is create with the 20 or 50% tax money it collects? – certainly also play a role. I’ll look at some of what the states does next week: the Nanny State.

The Good Life: 75 years of research in five simple words

One of the eternal quests of men is to discover the good life. The key to happiness, one would suppose, cannot be simple. What would the conclusions be of a 75-year study of the Good Life be? They must at the minmum fill a small library.

In what is now one of my favourite TED talks, Robert Waldinger summarises the takeaways in twelve minutes I need to eat my breakfast.

75 years of study

Waldinger is the director of the so-called Grant Study. In the longitudinal study, started 75 years ago, Harvard students starting university in the years 1939-1944 have been studied throughout their life. Every two years, research staff came to see them, asking them about health and illness, happiness and misery, career and love. Based on thousands of data points, the researchers got an in-depth understanding of how the health of these 268 men developed over life. The study included people running for senator (and one US President – guess and check at the end of the post if you were right!), doctors and lawyers, but also people who fell down hard from the top. And to ensure the findings wouldn’t be biased on different realities of the Harvard elite, the study early in its history was complemented by a survey of a sample of 456 inner city Boston boys.

Social relations for happiness and health

How did Waldinger summarise all these years of data in his twelve minutes? Simple: he pointed out how social relations are the key to our happiness and our health:

  • Social connections are good for us – and loneliness kills. Social relations to friends, family and community are correlated with longer lives. And loneliness is toxic: it’s associated with earlier decline in health.
  • Quality is king. Living in conflict is bad for health: high-conflict marriages without affection may even be worse than getting divorced. That doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly: the typical bickering old-age couple isn’t too problematic, as long as both partners know they can rely on each other in case of need.
  • Good relations protect our brain. If you want to predict the health of someone’s brain at age 80, data of their relationship satisfaction age 50 provide a good indication.

Is it really that simple?

If you’re a sceptic, I know what you’ll say reading this. First: how can we make judgements based on relatively small samples, of only 268 and 456 studies. Second: is there proof that this correlation means causation. If we study 10,000 instead of just over 700 people, are the effects the same? Thirdly: is the key to happiness this simple and obvious? Can it be reduced to, just, being a good person to your wife or husband?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. I haven’t conducted the research myself. I haven’t analysed the 10,000s of data points to come to these conclusions. The way I see it is that these conclusions, maybe more than anything, are good reminders to focus on the big picture from time to time as we frantically go from place to place and task to task, busy living our lives.

In two articles portraying the study in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2013, Waldinger’s predecessor as study lead George Vaillant presents a couple of other lessons. And again, these are quite obvious, or at least, they don’t come as big surprises:

  •  Alcoholism is destructive, and the number one cause of divorce.
  • From a certain point, a higher IQ doesn’t affect incomes anymore
  • A good relationship with your mother matters your entire life
  • And: aging liberals have better sex lives (ok, maybe that one was actually less obvious!)

Tools to unravel the mystery of happiness

In our attempts to unravel the mystery of happiness, we use all kind of different tools, from spiritual retreats to decade-long surveys. Ultimately, even though happiness means different things for different people, probably the conclusion of most of these quite similar. In the words of Vaillant, when summarising his decades as leader of the study:

“Happiness is love. Full stop”

 

And who was the later US President who participated in the study? John F. Kennedy.

Less is more: a minimalist life

I’ve spent some time the last month in packing, storing, and reordering, as I moved recently. It made me realise how much stuff I own: books I’ve read a long time ago, clothes I don’t wear, postcards and pictures reminding me of ancient times in my own life, scientific articles to prepare my thesis while in university, all kind of random small objects… so much stuff!

When I was in this reflective mood, I met a guy who has a lot more minimalist approach to life than I did. I’ll call him Alex, because that is his name. Alex lived in various countries throughout his life, and ended up in Brussels around a year ago. He rents a room here, and all his own possessions fit in two suitcases. (Funnily, he admitted he owns seven pairs of underwear, so he needs to do laundry at leat once per week, but is thinking of buying more of them).

Alex doesn’t necessarily define himself a minimalist, but there any people who do. For some, it means picking a certain lifestyle which is less about stuff and more about experiences. For others, there clearly is a sport in it to count and reduce the number of items they own, to 288 items only, to 100, or even 50 or below. Some go by with less than seven pieces of underwear. To be honest, most of cheat a little: they may count three pieces of underwear as one item!

Does less stuff equal more happiness?

Have the minimalists found a pathway to happiness in a time when storage centers are booming business? The science on stuff and happiness is not that clear. According to this post, minimalism is a tool that can help people reassess their priorities. For instance, when the focus shifts away from owning stuff and towards spending money on experiences or social relations, that is something that contributes to happiness.

From research on the relation between consumption, money, and happiness, we know for a long time time that there are ‘hedonic adaptation’ and a ‘hedonic treadmill’ effects. Once we acquire something new, we quickly get used to it, and need to buy other things again to retain this feeling. Hence, material goods do not create lasting happiness, and we up storing boxes and boxes of stuff outside our house.

To the contrary, spending money on special experiences works, says professor Michael Norton. You might not remember anything anymore about the experience of buying a piece of clothing five years ago. But I bet you remember a special outing you did, like going skydiving or a hike with friends.

Storage centers, a booming business.

Storage centers, a booming business.

It’s decluttering and ordering, not minimising, that matters

One of the great benefits of minimalism, wrote one of the bloggers I read, is the following: you never have to look search for anything, and cleaning your apartment takes only a couple of minutes. But all good virtues come in moderation. A couple of more extreme people like Alex aside, probably most of us are better off with just a bit less and better organised stuff, not a minimal amount of stuff.

Looking at blogs and book titles, there is an enormous hype around ‘decluttering’. This term simply means clearing ‘clutter’ out of our houses and our lives, by throwing (or giving) away clothes, books, and household items you don’t need. When all your stuff is in your life and your house for a reason – be it because of a practical use, or sentimental value – you’re in a situation where less is more.

Am I tempted to throw away all my books and become a minimalist? Absolutely not. I have selected and re-selected my collection, and I cherish those books I’ve kept. I like to believe that everything I own is there for a reason.

These chaps may disagree. But to me, it’s not the number of items in your life that counts, but the life in your items.

 

How is Gross National Happiness measured in Bhutan?

I’ve already written about the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) a lot. But attending the international GNH conference in Paro, Bhutan, I have improved my understanding of what GNH really means. In a couple of blog posts, I want to outline the methodology, the 2015 survey findings, and the actual use of GNH as a policy tool.

Let’s start with the methodological part here. It’s a bit more technical exercise, but at least it helps to understand what we are really talking about when referring to GNH and where the numbers come from. If you’re interested in the results for 2015, be patient for a couple of days.

The nine domains and 33 indicators of GNH

GNH has been devised by Bhutan as an alternative indicator for GDP as a tool to measure progress or development. The level of GNH for an individual and for Bhutan as a country are determined through measures in nine domains. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH research’s nine domains (see picture below) are all based on well-being research determining their link to well-being and happiness.

The nine domains of GNH. Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey

The nine domains of GNH. Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey, p. 11

All domains are weighted equally, or at 1/9. For most domains, there are four underlying variables. Each of the 33 variables is tested through one or more questions within the 1,5 hour personal interview. For instance:

  • the domain education is measured via asking respondents about the variables literacy, schooling, knowledge about certain areas, and values.
  • Living standards are measured through the indicators household income, assets, and housing.
  • The psychological well-being measure consists of life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions, and spirituality.

The weights of the various variables in a domain are unequal. The different weights are based on scientific reliability and validity. In general, subjective (or personal) indicators have been given lower weights than objective (or factual) indicators.

How do all these answers result in a GNH score for an individual and for the country as a whole?

It’s not just a simple average. As statisticians say,

When your head is in the oven and your feet in the freezer, your average temperature is normal

In happiness, averages don’t count: e.g. a excessively low level of positive emotions cannot be countered by an extremely high level of household income.

Sufficiency targets

For this reason, within each indicator, a ‘sufficiency target’ is set to reduce the impact of outlier answers. A person is considered ‘happy’ under this indicator when the ‘sufficiency’ level is achieved. For example, sufficiency targets are set as follows:

  • ‘Six years education’ for the indicator ‘schooling’ in the domain education
  • A monthly income level of 23.127 Ngultrum (about €325) for the indicator ‘household income’ in the domain living standards.
  • For the indicator ‘life satisfaction’ in the domain psychological well-being, a score of 19 out of 25 points on five questions related to satisfaction with health, occupation, standard of living, family, and work-life balance.

Thresholds to be ‘extensively’, ‘deeply’, or ‘narrowly’ happy

Based on all answers for the 33 indicators, it can be determined on how many indicators a person is sufficient, and a judgement is given how happy a person is. These thresholds are as follows:

  • Sufficiency in 77%-100% of the weighted 33 indicators: deeply happy
  • Sufficiency in 66%-76%: extensively happy
  • Sufficiency in 50%-65%: narrowly happy
  • Sufficiency in 0%-49%: unhappy or ‘not-yet-happy’

Of course these cut-off limits are arbitrary. If we want to express the GNH or happiness in a number, I would consider the first two categories as happy, and the lower two as unhappy. But in one Bhutanese newspaper, I’ve read an article grouping the first three under ‘happy’, hence resulting in a headline stating that more than 90% of Bhutanese are happy.

How valid are these figures?

Within happiness research, there is a continuous discussion on the reliability, validity, and overall usefulness of indicators to measure happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, and quality of life. An important part of these is the distinction between objective and subjective indicators.

For instance, a subjective indicator like ‘life satisfaction’ asks people to rate their overall level of life satisfaction. Of course people throughout cultures and with different personalities would assess their levels differently. A certain level of happiness could be expressed as an 8 by one person and as a 7 of another person. In addition, the bias might differ from country to country. For instance, one could theorise that people in Bhutan aware of the concept of GNH could be under pressure to answer with a high number, increasing the average.

To some extent, the use of objective criteria – like the number of years of schooling – avoids these problems. But again, there are problems with objective criteria. Most importantly, they assume that the researcher can reliably determine what qualify of life is for a respondent. What if a person has had only five years of schooling, but is still satisfied with this? Ultimately, there is no way around this dilemma, and it is one of the reasons for criticism of alternative indicators.

It’s the trend, not the headline figure, that counts

Happiness, though, is not an exact science. Parties deal differently with this reality. The Centre for Bhutan Studies (and also, the OECD), has considered that the best way is to use objective indicators where available, and subjective indicators where necessary. As researcher Tshoki Zangmo explained me, the CBS feels that a balance is needed as they’re both important to determine GNH.

When you dig deep into these, every choice has methodological and practical limitations. Every measure for happiness or well-being is imperfect, arbitrary and subject to criticism. Of course the same can be said for the GDP measures that happiness indicators aim to provide an alternative for!

Also, the trends within the nine different domains and constituent indicators are probably more relevant for the policy than the ultimate outcome in numbers. For instance, a finding that psychological well-being is decreasing, that might be a lot more useful input to public policy than the conclusion that overall GNH is 0.756.

The present article is based on the methodology of the GNH index 2015 and some separate questions to CBS researcher Tshoki Zangmo.

IMG_3223

The conference tent, with the stage in the front, seen from my seat among a group of local high school students.

The Unhappy States of America: three decades of decline in happiness

In the United States, the self-proclaimed greatest country on earth, people are in for a surprise when you ask them to guess how high the US ranks in the World Happiness Report 2015. The US takes the fifteenth spot with a 7.119, falling just below – God-forbid … Mexico! The top-three countries Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark trail the US by about 0.4 points.

unhappy America

Source: The Economist

Like any country in the world, the US is full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is the second largest economy, the leader of the Western world (except France), and home to the revolutionary digital industries of Silicon Valley. On the other hand, news about the US often talks about growing inequality, racial tensions, hardly affordable healthcare and education, a rising use of anti-depressants, and an inexplicable rigidity in gun policies. By some Europeans, it seen as a developed country trapped inside a developing one.

What went wrong?

So was the US a better place three decades ago?

Some people think it was. Proponents of alternative economic indicators to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have argued that since the start of neo-liberal Reaganomics, the focus has been too much on economic growth and too little on quality of life as a whole. For instance, the US Genuine Progress Indicator aims to measure exactly that: genuine progress, based on performance on economic, environmental and social issues. Comparing US scores from the 1950s until recent, it sees a peak in the 1970s. Since, the benefits of economic growth have been off-set by the cost of income inequality, leisure time, and environmental degradation.

Other studies, however, draw other conclusions. It’s often written  that happiness levels are remarkably stable in Western developed countries in the last 50 years. The World Values Survey does not show major movements since the 1980s. The World Happiness Report scores the US in 2015 (data from 2012-2014) only marginally lower, about -0.2, than in 2005-2007.

Three decades of growing inequality

Inequality is very often cited as one of the reasons related to the decreasing life satisfaction in the US. Stanford University has pooled a set of charts documenting the rise of inequality in the last decades:

  • In 1979, CEOs earned 35 times as much as the average production worker. In 2009, 185 times (after a peak of almost 300 in 2000!).
  • In real terms, only college graduates have seen their wages grow since 1979. This is not the case for people who attended but didn’t graduate college, or only have a high school degree. This ‘education wage premium’, however, comes at the cost of student loans up to $50,000 or $100,000, begging the question what is college worth?
  • From 1983 to 2007, the share of wealth of the upper 10% has increased from 68.2 to 73.1%, while the bottom 50% went from 6.1 to 4.2%.

The World Happiness Report also points out that increasing female labour market participation could be a factor in changes in happiness: since the mid-1970s, the share of female labour has increased. At the same time, the ‘happiness advantage’ of women over men has reversed, likely because many women tend to have lesser quality jobs in the US market.

What can be done about it?

At least according to the stereotypes, Americans more than any other nations are able to set an objective and go for it. That’s what the American dream is about. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the contributors to the World Happiness Report, points out a couple of the answers. Increasing equality and social trust is where the answer starts. That also means a mental shift: a state providing healthcare or financing education shouldn’t be seen as giving ‘hand-outs’ or ‘redistribution’, but as a state that ensures that everybody can get ahead. In short, it’s about throwing some of solutions from Switzerland, Iceland or Denmark into the United States. If the US wants to be the best and greatest in happiness, drastically reducing social immobility and inequality is the first step to go.

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahneman, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness website, Penn University

 

The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?

 

Post Navigation