Category Archives: Science

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?

 

Happiness: it’s not just your genes, stupid!

One of the most quoted facts about happiness goes as follows:

50% of happiness is determined by your genes.

10% of happiness is determined by the circumstances in which you live.

40% of happiness is determined by your actions, your attitude or optimism, and the way you handle situations.

These figures are often quoted by positive psychologists to back up claims that at least a part of our happiness is man-made. It’s a comforting message: despite the fact that there is a certain genetic disposition to be happy, there are many things in life that we can change to be happy. 40% is a large margin of manoeuvre! Imagine that we could control 40% of the weather, or the traffic on the our way to work.

According to these theories, happiness would look like this:

Source:

Source: Funders and Founders, based on material in ‘The How of Happiness’

The famous 50-10-40% formula is prominent in work done by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. Based on a body of research in this field, she and her colleagues argued that approximately 50% of variance in happiness is determined by genes, and 10% of variance in happiness is determined by circumstances. Automatically, that would leave 40% that we can influence.

 

Except that, there is a lot that’s wrong with the figures and the interpretation.

 

Variance in happiness does not equal happiness

To start with the first important nuance: these figures explain the variance in happiness - or the variation in happiness between different people. That is, genetic factors – or the presence of heritable personal traits – can explain about 50% of the difference in happiness levels between two people. It’s a small, but important detail. It means that if one person scores a 7 out of 10, and another person scores an 8, 50% of that 1-point difference could be due to genetic traits. That is not the same as saying that for a person that scores an 8, half of its level of happiness, or 4 points, are due to genetics.

 

Why 50% genetic, and not 40% or 60%?

Where does this theory come from? A 1996 study by Lykken and Tellegen compared well-being levels of samples of pairs of identical and non-identical twins in Minnesota, either raised together or apart. This differentiation allows to test both the impact of same or different genetics (identical vs non-identical) vs same or different environment (raised together or apart), e.g. both nature and nurture effects. Namely, identical twins share the same genes, and non-identical ones do not.

Lykken and Telleken found that the correlation of levels of well-being of identical twins in both cases are around 50%, significantly higher than for non-identical ones (2-8%). As such, they conclude that around half the variation is determined by genetics. This would leave another half determined by other factors. But it is important to note that this particular study has a limited sample. The smallest groups consists of only 36 pairs or 72 people. From a sample of twins in Minnesota, it is hard to draw so strong conclusions for human population as such.

 

Is it so simple?

The variance in happiness is not the full answer. In a comment of the preference of positive psychologists to favour well-rounded figures, Todd Kashdan notes a couple of other issues with genetics.

The first points is that personal traits – influenced by genetics – are not stable over life. Traits are shaped by a process called ‘emergenesis’. When a characteristic is ‘emergenic’, it is affected by the interaction of a couple of genes together. This might result in a behavioural predisposition to be extravert, self-controlled, or any other trait. (And similarly, there is not one ‘happiness gene’).

So far so good. But the way these genes work out is affected by many other factors. One example Kashdan mentions is that toxins or nutriments in a person’s environment can switch genes ‘on’ and ‘off’. In turn, the functioning of an individual gene can affect such an emergenic factor. If you add or take away a block from a tower, it will look different.

This reminds me of another example I learned about at a course on happiness. A certain individual may have a genetic predisposition for leadership. But if he grows up in an environment where resulting actions are suppressed, the talent will not come to fruition. As such, genes could be seen as ‘enabling’ factors, that only result in an outcome (such as happiness) when underlying conditions are met.

 

Genes interact with the environment

Another important issue notes is the interaction of genes and environment. In the same article, Kashdan writes that

Much of what influences our personality has to do with the presence of (positive and negative) life events and our response to choice points. Do I approach or avoid my co-worker who regularly demeans me? Do I wake up early and workout or sleep in? Do I ask out the girl I’ve had a crush on for months or do I keep my feelings to myself? No single decision matters but the patterns do. The decisions we make, the people we surround ourselves with, and the behaviors we engage in, are the building blocks for the quality of our lives. Small changes accumulate over time leading to large changes in who we become.

Our personality is the result of a complex process, in which genes and environment interact. Can we really put a hard number on that?

 

Happiness is not a formula

My answer is no. There is no comfortable formula for happiness. What we can say, is that our genes play an important role in determining happiness. But so do other factors, including our circumstances, environment, and our actions. Happiness is not a hard science. It is a way too complex phenomenon to quantify. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why it is so fascinating.

Rather than like a pie chart with three elements, happiness may rather look like a complex system:

The Internet as a Complex System. Source: opto.org

The Internet as a Complex System. Source: opto.org

Spinach is not the key to happiness. And neither is Coca Cola.

Sex sells. But happiness might sell even better.

Marketers know that very well. They claim that purchasing their products – as opposed to their competitor’s – make a consumer happy. I already commented a bit on this a couple of months ago, in two posts about the psychological effects of food, and about marketing food with happiness claims.

Since, I came across this sign:

happiness

Beyond this a funny and simple sign in front of a bar with a cheeky claim about happiness, I also saw a perfected version of the message “Buy us = happiness” from Coca-Cola.

The giant sugared drinks producer is becoming the strongest commercial happiness provider. After taking happiness as a theme via ‘Share Happiness’ and ‘Open Happiness’ campaigns, it now has launched regional campaigns under the name ‘Choose Happiness’. In Belgium, one of the posters alludes to Brussels’ symbol Manneken Pis. It looks like this:

CocaCola

 

The science of food and happiness states that marketers very occasionally do have a point when they claim that their products can increase people’s happiness or positive emotions. ‘Comfort foods” fatty acids affect neural signals in the brain, and can result in a weaker response to sad images. And the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter most linked to positive emotions and happiness, can be aided by products like spinach, turkey and bananas. Before you stock up on spinach, consider that this implies a limited positive link, and by no means a direct and automatic effect. Spinach is not the key to happiness.

And, sorry to disappoint you, neither are gin-tonic and Coca-Cola. The sugar rush of a Coke can give a momentary positive stimulus to your mood. But the same is true for a Pepsi, and neither equals happiness. Slogans like ‘Choose Happiness’ misleadingly suggest an automatic effect. Of course we rationally know that all the expression of fun, social status, and the good life are artificial tricks to seduce us.

But by claiming happiness, marketers enter a very personal life domain. If, as Coca Cola seems to argue, people have full control of their own happiness (‘success is a choice’),it implies that the easiest way to be successful is by consuming their product. It also transmits the message that failure is a choice, and that is our own fault if we are unhappy. That’s not something that I as a consumer want to hear from a company.

In a way, I prefer the cheeky slogan of a bar, saying that a gin tonic brings us closer to happiness. It’s a lot more playful way of attracting attention.

If I wanted a drink of happiness, I’d go for a gin-tonic.

Happiness in the past, present and future

Robert Biswas-Diener is one of the most original thinkers on happiness I know. His work provides a smart counterweight to the ‘happiologist’ part of positive psychology. A happiness consultant himself, he observes that within the ‘happiness biz‘, there are a lot of people who appear to see happiness at work as the one and only goal.

Interestingly, Biswas-Diener does not agree. He points that when people are happy, they are likely to have a ‘good enough’ philosophy. Gratitude and acceptance form one aspect of happiness. But being grateful with what you have can also hinder self-improvement. Instead, Biswas-Diener believes in the ‘upside of your dark side’: negative emotions like guilt, grief and anger can drive our actions and help us grow.

This is a very helpful contribution to the discipline of positive psychology, which sometimes appears to believe that acceptance and gratitude can take away real problems. Being positive can help in dealing with problems, but cannot take them away. A positive mindset should inspire real actions to face difficulties.

Happiness is in the past..

Only last week I came across Biswas-Diener’s TED talk, with the tile ‘Your Happiest Days are Behind You’. In his talk, Biswas-Diener answers one of the fundamental questions:

How can I be happier?

The common tendency of individuals is to see happiness as something in the future. One of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they project happiness on goals they haven’t achieved yet. And often, these goals are conflicting:

‘If only I met a nice girl’.

‘If only I had a child’.

‘If only I had that dream job at the Commission.’

‘If only I could work less, and have more holidays’

As Biswas-Diener formulates it: the future is an unreliable sources of happiness. How can we escape from our own expectations about the future? There are various ways out. One of them is by manufactured or ‘synthetic happiness‘, as psychologist Dan Gilbert says. What my answer is, I’ll say below. But first, let’s look at Biswas-Diener’s answer.

The past is the source of happiness…

In his very, very worthwhile talk, Biswas-Diener says that the past, not the future, is the source of happiness. The happiest days are behind you. And with a personal story that I absolutely recommend you to watch, he tells us why he so much believes in the past as a source of happiness. The gist is as follows: by remembering happy moments of the past, you will be able to recreate moments of happiness, and you will experience them again.

Have you watched the story? Can you imagine the race between Robert and the little girl in the slum of Calcutta? Great!

Robert states that memories like this race are the ones that are the answer to the question ‘how can I be happier’. And I agree that remembering happy experience is a very significant part of the answer. But I wonder how reliable the effect remains when one remembers the same memory more often. I would expect there is a somewhat limited life span, as the ‘happiness impact’ of these emotional moments may wear off when you tell or relive the story more regularly.

Compare it to a band playing their hit singles: initially it’s great to see the crowd cheer when they hear your top hit. But if concert after concert, day after day, all the audience wants to hear is the same songs, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. A diverse set of top hits (and happy moments!) thus is important.

… or is it the present?

Therefore, I’d argue that neither the future, nor the past are truly reliable sources of happiness. Instead, I would focus on… the present. Ultimately, our life is lived in the now, not in the future nor in the post. Our aim should be to spent our ‘nows’ – the moment that is easiest to control – in a way that makes us happy. We can go out on a day when the weather is nice. We can do sports, meet friends, or work on goals that are important for us. And by doing so, and appreciating the great moments along the way, we both work on a happy future and create a supply of happy memories that we can enjoy again.

The World Happiness Report 2015: a wealth of data to make the world a happier place

The World Happiness Report 2015 is out and struck some headlines last week. Number one this year is Switzerland, and Togo comes last. But beyond praising winners and shaming losers, there is a lot more of interested figures to find. A quick selection of some of them.

The good news: how happy are we?

  • Let’s start with the good news. Of 130 countries where it was possible to compare data from 2012-2014 with 2005-2007, 53 saw significant improvements in happiness levels (41 decreased and 36 had no meaningful change). This suggests the world is a slightly happier place then it used to be.
  • The biggest improvements were made in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Moldova and Sierra Leone, who each added around one full point in their score.
  • It’s the well-expected developing countries that fill the top-1o: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia, all a solid 7.3 or higher
  • … and what’s the score of the number one, Switzerland? With three decimals to be Swiss and precise, we get to 7.587.

Other good news (but not in stats)!

  • The most important sections maybe are not those listing the countries, but providing case studies of cities and regions who have changed their policies to make use of all the knowledge about happiness, from Dubai to Jalisco (Mexico), and from Santa Monica to Bristol.
  • At the same time, progress is also made in the neuroscience of happiness. A dedicated chapter 5 summarizes some of the findings. For instance, evidence about the link between positive emotions and happiness appears to be stronger and stronger.
  • There is more and more understanding about the various distribution patterns of happiness within age groups and genders. Overall, women are slightly happier than men. Over age groups, the patterns differ per region: in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and South Asia, happiness goes down as age progresses. But in East Asia, but also in Western Europe, the best comes last: happiness levels go up as people enter their 70s.

The bad news: how unhappy are we?

  • There is still a lot, a lot of misery on our planet. More than fifty countries have happiness levels below 5.
  • And the worst-performing are truly miserable. Countries like Syria and Afghanistan, but also Rwanda, Benin and Burundi fall under 3.6 The lowest level is found in Togo at 2.839.
  • Two countries on different sides of the Mediterranean – Egypt and Greece – have lost more than one point. And some others (Jordan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Italy) lost around three quarters of a point.
  • For instance, the case of Italy (-.764, now at 5.948) is worrying. Usually, a high happiness level means a high level of resilience in phase of challenge. This fabric might be unraveled as result of the crisis Italy is going through.
  • To end with a positive note: he best ‘losers’, as far as one could be a loser with a score of 7.527, are the Danes. Denmark typically ranks one in most of the happiness report. I have been told that usually, it is no news when a happiness ranking is published, but this time it was: apparently, Danes are not used anymore to come second (or third, as now).

And now?

The 2015 World Happiness Report comes out with a large ambition: influencing the next development goals. As the UN prepares to adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) this year, the hope is that happiness outcomes are targeted within the SDGs. A worthwhile ambition: ultimately increasing human happiness and its fair distribution should be the goal of public policy.

One concern: the SDG process appears to be very complex, with over 150 different – and often, vague – ideas currently on the list of goals that could be adopted later this year. In such a process, they risk to lose their meaning. But either way, the wealth of statistics provides a lot of inspiration and background data to policy makers to make the world a happier place.

Geography of happiness

A $70k minimum wage: a real-life experiment in happiness economics

Money: it proves to be the central topic for happiness researchers worldwide. Only last week I wondered how money affects me. This week, coverage from various international newspapers on a great new real-life experiment left me no choice but to discuss it again.

A $70k minimum wage, based on scientific advice

Dan Price, CEO of the Seatlle-based Gravity Payments decided to raise the salary of all his staff to a minimum of $70,000. He made his decision after reading an academic article by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton. Analysing data on salaries and well-being within a Gallup poll under 450,000 US citizens, Kahneman and Deaton found that well-being does not raise anymore after a salary of around $75,000. As they acknowledge their study does not settle the eternal question whether money buys happiness. Indeed, an enormous number of studies has been dedicated to the topic, and findings are inconclusive. For instance, a UK study based on figures for multiple countries from the World Value Survey I cited in another post reported a figure already of $30,000 as a cut-off point.

How do Kahneman and Deaton come to the figure of $75,000? Whilst the article is very readworthy, let me give you a quick overview. They distill four indicators out of the Gallup data. Firstly, ‘positive affect’ measures how often people report happiness, enjoyment, and smiling and laughter; people were asked whether they experienced these (and other) emotions the day before their interview. Secondly, ‘not blue’ uses a similar technique, but regards the number of people who did not experience sadness and worry. Thirdly, ‘stress-free’ measures one question: whether the interview person experienced stress the day before. Finally, Kahneman and Deaton extracted income data from the survey.

The table summarises the findings: all three factors increase when income increases. The factor ‘not blue’ shows the largest difference, indicating that sadness and worry are more strongly associated with lower incomes. But what the three characteristics have in common is that all of them at a certain point – at around $75,000 – increase only very marginally or even degree. An ideal point, possibly.

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The graph comes from the publication (Kahneman and Deaton 2010)

 

A real-life experiment 

Price’s decision was not only a great and happy surprise for the half of his staff who earned less than $70,000, but also is a very interesting social experiment. In this almost communist version of capitalism, the impact on the firm is likely to be massive. In the New York Times article, people with a current salary in the $40,000s tell being concerned about rent increases and health bills. An increase should alleviate such worries, making an overall contribution to happiness.

One of the most curious about the impact on the internal dynamics and job satisfaction. According to the article, the firm has 120 staff, with an average salary of $48.000. 70 staff see their salary increase; 30 people will have their salaries double. That also means that the differences between staff with different seniority and competences disappears.

How will this impact motivation? There can be two possible directions. On the one hand, people may be less motivated to work harder. They are less incentivised to do so as they already have the guarantee of a raise. And a cynic could argue that there might be some frustration amongst those employees who are in the top bracket.

On the other hand, the effects could be positive. Giving this raise is likely to increase overall well-being, and originates from the work environment, it would be expected to result in higher levels of happiness at work. One of the main effects, I would expect, is that the unconditional raise could increase the trust of Price’s employees, which would be hoped to be repaid via a commitment to stay at the firm and perform well in exchange for this reward. That could lead, for instance, to better staff retention and strong self-motivation.

Happiness at work is associated with a range of positive outcomes at firm level, going from lower absenteeism, less sick leave, higher productivity, and overall job performance. Beyond that, higher and more equal wages of course of societal benefits, as the new economic foundations note in a blog post.

Once the shock of the raise is over, I hope that Price is monitoring the development of happiness at work over a longer time period. It’s a great case study and it will be wonderful to see what the real effects are. It’s not only useful for all companies in the US who may want to follow the example to increase equality on the work floor and happiness at work, but also for companies outside. Maybe then one day we can establish whether there really is an optimal income for happiness.

Money – making sense of the root of all evil

Money, it’s a crime 
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say 
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise
That they’re giving none away

Pink Floyd, Money

For a happiness blogger, money is an obvious topic to cover. In the last year and a half, I’ve written a series of posts on money and happiness.

But how does money affect me?

I hadn’t thought of that so much, until I took a workshop with Sydney Schreiber last month. Sydney’s workshop is titled Making sense of your relationship with money (see intro video here). And indeed, participating helped me reflect on how I use money and what it does for me.

This reflection started already before the workshop: as homework I had to calculate my net worth, or the value of all my (material) possessions, and my annual income. This is not an easy thing to do. When it comes to a collection of books or ties, for instance, do I count the €15 or €20 I bought a book for? Should I consider how much I could earn by selling your ties? And how does it work with gifts when I don’t know their price?

Money has a million different meanings

moneyFrom an association exercise with the group, we could observe that money means something different for everybody. Terms that were mentioned when Sydney asked us to associate went in all directions: from ‘hedonism’, ‘root of all evil’ and ‘pollution, to ‘love’ and ‘pleasure’, and from ‘happiness’ to ‘unhappiness’. For Sydney, none of these associations is right or wrong: he sees money as a blank screen, that represents whatever we project on it. It’s a valid point: money doesn’t have any meaning per se. Fundamentally, it’s merely a piece of paper that gets its meaning because we accept in exchange of books or ties.

How we see oftentimes is influenced by our background. Are we raised with American, European or Asian values? Do we value material possessions, personal creativity, or social harmony most? Do we come from a business-like or a spiritual family?

Another interesting exercise we did was writing our biography with money: when were we first aware that money existed? Had it ever created great possibilities or difficulties? An extract of the one I wrote:

I don’t have many memories about money in my childhood. I probably received around 2 guilders (€0.90) per month when I was around 6 or 7, and 5 guilders (€2.25) when I was nine. Most if not all went to my savings.

I did spend some money on ice cream or pinball machines during holidays. My family usually didn’t spend a lot of money. Saving is important in the Netherlands and we don’t like to waste money.

 

For something that influences our lives so much, we think surprisingly little about money. One of the takeaways I got is how ambivalent money is to people. It can have a positive as well as a negative influence one. And whilst this seems quite obvious intuitively, psychological research even has been able to prove the effect.

Psychological research shows: money impacts enjoyment

A study from the University of Liège, described by the Scientific American, laid out evidence that money can influence how much we enjoy certain experiences. In two experiments, the researchers tested how participants would enjoy experiences. Half of the participants were primed as they were shown a picture of money; the other half did not. Then, they were asked to do a psychological test. The results showed that the first group scored lower on enjoyment of pleasant experiences than the second.

In a second test, the same results were replicated in a different fashion. With again half of the participants given a stimulus of money (and the other group none), two groups were asked to eat a piece of chocolate. On average, the people who had seen the image of money munched away their piece of chocolate in 13 seconds less: 32 seconds for those primed with money; and 45 for those who didn’t have their experience spoiled by this exposure.

All this makes clear that money can have quite a significant influence on our experiences. Sometimes that may be problematic, other moments it may not. But in either case, it should be within our control. For that, it’s useful to have insight in your relationship to money.

For more about Sydney’s workshop, see http://freetobe.be/