Tag Archives: Well-being

The power of negative emotions – and two other lessons of the Foro Bienestar

I just came back from two weeks in Mexico. During these weeks, I fled the Brussels grey, rain and cold to replace it by the occasional Mexico City grey, the jungle rain, and Pacific coast warmth. Moreover, I spent a couple of days at the Foro Bienestar (International Forum of Well-Being and Development) in Guadalajara, where I was invited to speak. In the next two weeks, I’ll offer some thoughts about my own presentation on happiness and public policy and about the question ‘why are Mexicans so happy’ that was the leitmotiv of the conference. However, today I wanted to share some insights about the main points that I took home from the conference. Are you ready? Here we go!

Don’t forget the power of negative emotions

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Speaking of negative emotions: this slide by Stefano Bartolini (University of Siena) shows the problem of social comparisons and happiness very well.

Most of the speakers were academics and the good thing about academics, contrary to some happiness consultants, is that they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by their enthusiasm so much that they forget that being happy all the time is not possible and not desirable. Negative emotions are a necessary counterweight to positive ones. In a simple metaphor: feelings are a mountainous landscape. Without the valleys of anger, frustrations and anxiety, the happy peaks of joy, tranquility and exaltation would not be happy peaks but part of a plain.

Robert Biswas-Diener, often labelled as a positive psychologist, brought this forward most prominently. Answering his own question ‘how happy should an individual be?’, he suggested that the ideal rate of positive and negative emotions might be positive 80% of the time and 20% negative of the time. Being happy all the time does not do justice to real and important feelings as guilt, grief and anger. For instance, as he also discusses in his book ‘The Upside of your Dark Side‘, guilt can motivate us to work harder and accomplish more than we ever could do if we’d be simply content with everything.

Measuring happiness is very, very simple and very, very, complex

A large part of the conference was dedicated to one simple question: how do you measure happiness? It is clear that there are many ways to do so: the World Happiness Database at the Erasmus University Rotterdam knows 963 different methodologies, said Jan Ott.

But professor John Helliwell, one of the authors of the UN World Happiness Report, explained these can be summarised in a couple of simple ways. One way is to ask people how happy they are in a specific moment. This can be happiness in the ‘now’, to grasp a person’s feelings most accurately, or a moment like ‘yesterday’ or even longer ago, to prevent that events limited in time have a major influence. Such a question can be answered very quickly, without a lot of thinking. A second way is to ask a more reflective question, asking how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. Questions asking about positive or negative emotions typically give more random and diverse answers.

The debate is open on happiness as a policy objective

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

In my opinion, it should be obvious that governments would aim to increase quality of life and well-being – happiness if you want – especially where incomes increase and poverty reduces. Still, using insights about happiness and well-being in public policy is quite scarce: another research to welcome that Jalisco, the region where Guadalajara is located, is facing the challenge. Meik Wiking, from the Danish Happiness Research Institute, identified that taking happiness as a political goal is a trend. But there is also a counter-trend: skepticism about government efforts to formulate happiness policy objectives.

Professor Bruno Frey strongly advanced the argument that with happiness as a policy objective, there would be major incentives to governments to manipulate data, for instance by excluding people with lower happiness and by  falsification of indicators. In a high-level debate – the Tyson vs Ali of  happiness researchers – he was taken on by professor Helliwell, who thought these risks could be reduced as methodologies will be tweaked over time and that manipulation could be constrained in a democratic society.

Beyond GDP, a long road to travel

Almost fifty year since the famous speech by Robert F. Kennedy, and almost ten years after the start of a thorough debate on ‘beyond GDP’, it’s time to meet the unfilled promise.

On some occasions before, I have written blog posts to encourage EU policy makers and politicians to step up their ambitions and integrate ‘beyond GDP’ indicators in their policies. For instance, see posts on ‘Gross European Happiness‘ or ‘An EU Happiness Manifesto‘, and an essay I wrote for the Next Generation for Europe magazine NGE Magazine 1 (Chapter three, pdf).

And I must say, the topic is on the agenda. I recently had the fortune to attend a European Commission expert conference on ‘beyond GDP’. Noting the importance of the topic, the conference was opened by two outgoing Commissioners: Laszlo Andor, for Social Affairs, and Janez Potocznik, for Environment.

Winning the battle of measurement…

How to make the giant leap from theory to practice? Enrico Giovannini, a former Italian Minister and OECD Chief Statistician, has pushed the debate on GDP forwards in the recent decade. He asked whether those supporting the idea of beyond GDP have won or lost in the debates from the last years. His conclusion was that the ‘battle of measurement’ has been won. In comparison to ten years ago, national statistic offices do a lot more effort to measure what matters.

Routine measurements of social and environmental indicators allows us to get a broader understanding of quality of life than economic growth and inflation could give us. They are more and more interested in collecting and refining social figures on employment rates, NEET rates (people Not in Education, Employment or Training – a proxy for youth employment), and inequality-adjusted GDP growth. Environmental numbers like generated waste, emission of green house gasses and water use also gain more prominence. And new indices like the OECD Better Life Index treat all indicators equally.

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Screenshot of the OECD Better Life Index website

… but the battle for policy must still be fought

There are two questions around this: do we measure enough? And do we do enough to exploit this massive amount of data and adapt our policies to it? When asking whether we won the battle of policy, the answer from Giovannini is simple – no. If you want to make simple policies from these crunched numbers, you have to make trade-offs. How much air pollution is an increase in GDP of 1% worth? How much fossil fuels can you burn to lift one thousand people out of poverty? And what, objectively, is well-being anyway? These are incredibly difficult questions to answer. Economic growth is a lot easier objective. There is no easy way out.

Can economic, environmental and social betterment go hand in hand? The Commission – via its stated objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth – thinks so. But MEP Philippe Lamberts doesn’t agree. He believes that in a finite planet, sustainable growth is an inherent paradox. From an environmental perspective, we may need degrowth; but at the same time, that has consequences on employment. And, higher growth is also associated with more money invested in environmental protection.

How do you cut this Gordian knot?

The quest for perfection limits action

Nobody can easily answer these complex these questions. But I can offer my own conclusions:

  1. A lot of laudable work is being done by statisticians and policymakers, especially in social and environmental departments. With a lot of conviction and passion, they had managed to put the issue on the agenda. But they need to get economists more involved in these debate to get more leverage. It was telling that very few participants were trained economists.
  2. Call me a pessimist, but my feeling is that the political momentum behind the beyond GDP drive is fading. There are generic references to the agenda, but the policy efforts needs to be stepped up. In my view, policymakers need to be more courageous and bring their policies to main stream politics. That requires broad political campaigning and communication, as the new economics foundation also writes (pdf). Reports don’t change reality. Action does.
  3. Finally, maybe it is a quest for perfection that is limiting action. A perfect measurement of well-being does not exist. If you group indicators together in one figure – say well-being is ’42′ – you can make little sense of it. Similarly, a ‘dashboard’ with eleven different figure as in the OECD Better Life Index can be difficult to apply. But in this case, it appears the perfect is the enemy of good. GDP also has been refined often. It’s better to refine measures and policies of well-being on the way than to never start the journey.

Beyond GDP: a long road to travel, but one that is worthy to go.

Where the life is good: the OECD’s Regional Well-Being index

[Gross Domestic Product] measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile

Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has taken Kennedy’s words to heart. Through its Better Life Index, it is conducting an impressive work programme to analyse quality of life in the 34 developed countries that constitute its membership. The OECD index provides a broad overview of quality life, measuring the performance of countries on various important issues, from housing to environment and from civic engagement to life satisfaction. Like  the Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept, the Better Life Index indicates what the good places to live are in a much broader sense than the mere economic data of GDP could do. Wealth’s correlation with happiness is limited at best, scientists have shown time and again.

But there remains a problem with this kind of national indices: they provide national averages – and do not say anything about the extremes and the equality of the data. California differs from Vermont. Sicily is not the same as Südtirol, the German-speaking part of Italy. To take account of regional differences in quality of life, the OECD has now released a similar website on regional well-being.

Some of the observations:

  • The balance varies a lot across regions. In California, income, jobs and education are at higher levels then in Vermont, but for safety and civic engagement the golden state is a lot worse off than Vermont.
  • Brussels is performing a lot worse on jobs (1.5 points out of 10) and environment (1.6) then I would think, but apparently has a high level of civic engagement (8.6).
  • Across the board, Dutch regions reach high scores, except for income and environment. All over the Netherlands, safety and access to services are close to perfect 10s.
  • Südtirol (or province of Bolzano) is indeed a different world from Sicily. The differences are most striking in the rate for jobs (8.8 vs 0.5). Italy’s figures confirm the large divide in incomes between North and South, whilst incomes are most equal in Austria.
  • Czech regions, to my mind, score surprisingly bad in health but almost all have full scores of 10 for education, here defined as the level of people with secondary education or higher.
  • The Mexican region of Jalisco has adopted well-being as a guiding principle in its policies. Still, it has a lot of space for improvement when compared with regions of richer OECD countries. The region already scores well on jobs and environment. And as a survey from a local NGO suggest, the comparable low scores do not mean that people perceive a low level of well-being. According to their figures, 67% in the region feels prosperous.
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Brussels Capital Region, the region where I live, scores well on civic engagement and access to services, but has a lot to improve for jobs and environment. Source: OECD

So What?

Lists and rankings have a broader use than providing bloggers something to browse through on a Sunday night. They can bring order to life – be it by classifying which celebrities are hot and which are not lists, listing the best goals of the World Cup so far (no surprise, Flying Dutchman van Persie tops the list), or of countries which provide the most creative ideas (Ireland is first according to TED).

The OECD list, similarly, provides a benchmark of how regions performance. Seeing where you outperform peers or lag behind gives a motivation to improve. The index can help regions to decide where to focus their resources, and thus make better-informed decision how to spend civil servants’ time and money. As our representatives, politicians and administration should learn from these data. The data can help our administration to perform their duty: continuous improvement of our collective well-being.

Examples of well-being projects in some regions are already included on the OECD site.

Condivivere, sharing a life of happiness

Update: the show is available here now (in Italian)

And? Did you tune in to Radio Alma last Monday to listen to my chat about happiness with the hosts Rossella, Tiziana and Leandro?

You might have missed it, or you may not speak Italian, so let me share some reflections. To start, radio is good fun. It’s a very interesting medium. Talking on the radio really forces you to formulate your message in small bits and pieces as part of the dialogue with your host. I haven’t heard myself back yet (I’ll post the show once it’s available), but I think I managed to bring forward my message.

There are two points I wanted to raise. First: there are many things we can do in our daily life to consciously experience personal happiness. Many people think happiness is something magical or secretive. For me, the secret to happiness is that there is no secret. I spoke a bit about the five ways to well-being, as developed by the new economics foundation. Understanding where happiness comes from can help us to stand still for a moment, like I did in front of a traffic light in London, to look around to be amazed of the speed and hurry of all those around us. Often we’re too much in a hurry to realise we are happy!

Second: we briefly spoke about Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a tool to translate these lessons about happiness to the level of society. Countries are prone to focus on economic growth. But maybe GNH is what they should strive for, if they want to creative a meaningful community in the long run.

I also had an interesting exchange of ideas with the second guest on the show, a singer-songwriter and poet called Leopoldo Verona. He spoke about ‘living life in the now’ and about ‘a sense of freedom’ as factors linked with happiness. It made me think about freedom: do we know how to use our freedom? Do we freely choose to spend our time playing silly games on our smartphones or eating fastfood? How can we motivate ourselves to use our freedom in a way that we enjoy more deeply, for instance by writing blog posts or poems and by cooking a so much more tasty asparagus risotto?

Maybe happiness is knowing how to use your freedom in a meaningful way.

But the main thought I took home from the conversation with Leopoldo is a very simple one. He is a poet, and poets have the great skill to forge words together, creating something bigger than the sums from their parts. For Leopoldo, happiness is about living fine moments with those around us. He epxresses that in one word, putting together ‘share’ (condividere) and ‘live’ (vivere) in condi-vivere.

Simply put, happiness is sharing life.

But everything sounds better in Italian: la felicita è condivivere.

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In the studio, with Leandro, Rossella and Tiziana.

Tune in to Radio Alma tonight!

Update: the show is available here now (in Italian)

Today is going to be an exciting day! I’ll be on Radio Alma to speak about happiness, well-being and my discoveries for For A State of Happiness. The show starts at 21, is in Italian and is called ‘I colori dell’anima‘ (the colours of the soul).

The transmission can be followed on 101.9 FM in Brussels or in streaming online from 21.00 to 22.00 (click the link ‘Radio Alma en direct’).

How do you prepare for such a show? Well, I won’t reveal yet what I will be talking about. Evidently, it will be close to the topics of exploration of For A State of Happiness. I’ll cover both the personal and the policy side of happiness and well-being.

How do you prepare for a show on a topic as large as happiness? As there are so many interesting angles to it, I asked my friends what questions about happiness they would like to have answered. I won’t be able to address all of them, but they do make me reflect for the show. These are some of the questions I received:

  • Does money or wealth actually make you happy?
  • Does happiness mean the same thing across cultures?
  • Do people have to be unhappy before they can experience happiness?
  • Can we all be happy one day?
  • Is happiness contagious?
  • How can we be happy if everybody around us spends their time complaining about everything?
  • Which factors determine happiness?

I won’t answer them for now… that’s for when I’m on air and for a follow-up blog afterwards.

But thanks a lot to Jakob, Otman, Fisnik, Katia and Isabelle for putting them out there.

Also have a question about happiness? Leave a comment and I’ll (happily!) share my thoughts. And of course, if you speak Italian, do tune in to Radio Alma at 21.00 today!

The Happy City: lessons from Bhutan

I wrote this article for Stadsleven (“City Life”), an Amsterdam-based talk show about urban issues. The next session on 27 January will be dedicated to the Happy City, and the editor of Stadsleven asked me to explain what our cities can learn from Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Bhutan. The original Dutch version can be found here.

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What is the objective of the state? Philosophers and leaders have been reflecting about this question for thousands of years. Most states focus their policies on economic development. The assumption is that when a country becomes richer, its citizens will be better off. But is that the case? Research shows that the Western world is a lot richer than fifty years ago. At the same time, we are hardly any happier than in the 1950s.

For Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, these conclusions do not come as a surprise. Already in 1972, Bhutan based its policy on Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH takes a broader approach than economic interests, and also helps the state to consider the influence of factors like health, mental well-being and community life. Bhutan’s king observed that these factors largely influence the happiness and quality of life of the Bhutanese, and thus put them as the central objective of public policy. The video explains how it works:

Bhutan’s core philosophy thus is different, and we hardly realise how revolutionary that is. The economy and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are central topics in the public debate in the Netherlands. We’re confronted with growth forecasts on a daily basis. Many people in the Netherlands will know that the target for the budget deficit is 3%. But will they have an idea about national happiness level? Probably not. And consider that the Social and Cultural Planning Agency (SCP) recently concluded that quality of life decreased between 2010 and 2012, for the first time in thirty years!

After Bhutan, the UK, the OECD and the European Commission, to name some, GNH could also inspire the Netherlands (and Amsterdam). Of course there is no way that our political leaders should tell you and me how to be happy. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is right in saying that the state is not a happiness machine. But the government does have the responsibility for our quality of life. But how, and what does make us happy?

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The British new economics foundation has researched five ways to well-being. These are factors that affect the happiness and well-being of an individual: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. Cities can integrate some elements in their urban planning and design. Public spaces can be designed to facilitate that people meet each other (connect) or are invited to do sports (be active). Through education and community activities, city councils can promote skills and values that help us to appreciate the moment (take notice), be curious (keep learning) and share with others (give).

The lessons of Bhutan deserve to be followed. Isn’t there a more noble cause than a happy city?

(Never) trust Einstein’s wisdom

“Not everything that counts, can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

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Attributed to Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. He revolutionised science with the theory of relativity. He was the subject of some wicked photographs – we’ve all seen the iconic photos of the great scientist with his tongue outside his mouth and with his electrified hair. And, if we believe what we are being told, he has authored a collection of aphorisms that rivals Oscar Wilde’s and would most certainly be an instant bestseller.

Reportedly, his timeless jewels includes quotes like

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity!”

and

“It’s better to be an optimist and be wrong, rather than be a pessimist and be right”

 

Did he really say that?

Wonderful quotes, but did he really say that? The classic internet joke attributes the statement “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it’s difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine” to Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the internet has brought misattribution to the next level.

The quote about counting, an almost mandatory reference entry in any article about Gross Domestic Product and well-being – is not the fruit of Einstein’s ingenious brain.  Quote Investigator writes that instead it has been authored by sociologist William Bruce Cameron.

The second one is autenthique, and given its subject is relativity, that is not surprising. The authorities of Wikiquote contend that Einstein suggested his secretary to use the comparison with hot stoves and pretty girls as a way to explain relativity to the general public.

The source of the third quote on optimism is unclear and it is attributed to various famous people. As a generic quote, it must have been around for long. And anything accredited to Einstein does get more weight.

Is it a problem that Einstein can only be proven to be the author of one of these three quotes? The technique, piggy-backing on a famous name, is often used in commercials (‘recommended by Rafael Nadal’, ‘used by Emma Watson’). I wouldn’t advocate the creation of a League for the Correct Attribution of Aphorisms to right all wrongs. But from an artistic point of view, the original source deserves to be mentioned.

In the current times, individual creativity and originality are highly valued. We don’t live in the middle ages anymore, where the subject of the art counted most. Often themes were openly copied (or blatantly plagiarised, in a more modern interpretation), and mostly left unsigned. Times have changed. A quick online search when you want to use a quote is the least one could do. William Bruce Cameron deserves some credit.

Matthieu Ricard’s plea for altruism

bonheurs coverOn my way to the shopping street for my Saturday groceries, I stop by in the press corner with the aim to buy stamps. I scan the shelf of magazines and see the familiar face of Matthieu Ricard stare at me from the cover of Bonheur(s) magazine.

Normally, I am wary of these kind of pseudo-psychological magazines produced for the happiness market. Every vague word that is not evidence-based triggers a critical counter-reaction. But, admittedly, this blog operates in the same market, so I figured I can always buy it for research purposes. In any case, it’s worthwhile to hear more of Ricard’s wisdom.

Matthieu Ricard is a former biochemist who become a Buddhist monk. He has been labelled the happiest man alive, and has a website featuring a ‘smile of the week’. In 2003, he wrote Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill, which he presented at TED in 2004. To summarise his talk, Ricard argues that ‘mind training’ and meditation can help us transform our brains. He questions why human beings spend 15 years in education, and lots of hours to keep fit and beautiful, but don’t seem willing to invest time in their well-being. Through this training, we can rewire our brain and nurture our receptiveness for happiness (or better, well-being).

 

A plea for Altruism

His interviewed in Bonheur(s) magazine is dedicated to the hefty 928-page volume on altruism he just published. His new book Advocacy for altruism spots the traces of altruism in neuroscientific research and the spiritual traditions of Buddhism.

Ricard argues that we all have an interest to be altruistic with our neighbours and future generations: “Altruism will help passing from a merchant’s world based on the principle of efficiency to a world of mutual help, from competition to cooperation“. To achieve that world, says Ricard, human beings must transform themselves to become truly altruistic. Like well-being, this is something we can train ourselves for. To do so, we need  the support of good masters like the Dalai Lama for whom altruism is a first nature. Ricard himself has been guided by Buddhist spiritual masters since the 1970s.

He ends the interview with a plea for altruism as a radical change in attitude that can contribute to solve the problems of our times – materialism, consumerism, narcissism, and even climate change. Ricard here refers to a study by the American psychologist Tim Kasser, whose longitudinal research demonstrated that people with strong materialistic tendencies and higher levels of wealth developed weaker social ties, a worse health record and lower levels of happiness.

What is altruism anyway?

Does this make Ricard’s plea for altruism convincing? Though the general principle and a concept sound appealing, there is one problem: what is altruism? If I decide to be altruistic from tomorrow onwards, what do I do? Could I function as an altruist in a generally consumerist and egoistic society? Can I really fight consumerism and climate change by thinking about my neighbours?

This notwithstanding, I believe Ricard has a bunch of valid points. Le bonheur, c’est les autres (happiness is other people). Many studies have shown how other people matter. But that will be the topic for a later post. To give a little pointer: ask the internet about Michael Norton’s work on money, giving and happiness.

On the road

Source: Wikipedia

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, the saying goes.

Today, I am quietly setting a foot outside of my door. Looking outside, into the wide world, with a curious glance of what happens around me. My first step, on a road of which I am not sure where it leads.

Sometime ago, I decided I wanted to understand better what makes people happy. Happiness is such a complex thing that we will never be able to truly grasp how it works. But still I believe it is worthwhile to get on the road and find out  what makes individuals, and societies happy.

This blog is dedicated to that journey.

I believe that intuitively human beings very well know what makes them happy: the company of other people. Cooking and enjoying a great meal with fresh ingredients. The thrill of seeing a new place. Yet, at the same time, we often act irrationally and forget to be happy. We force ourselves to work too long hours or let technology that is a weak proxy for human interaction take over our lives. Similarly, on the level of countries, we have given rise to a system where governments seem more concerned about our wealth than our well-being.

My journey (and my co-editor Wendy’s) will be leading to the place where I can discover why we are as we are. To discover how it could be different. I would like to meet people – you – who have stories about happiness. I’d like to speak to organisations who have spend their thinking power to figure out how we can apply the lessons from science happiness and well-being in our daily lives.

This blog is the travel journal of this journey. At present, I like to think of it as a beta version. But hey, I’ve just set the first steps out of my house. I haven’t crossed the corner yet. I am just stretching my legs a bit. I might have to tie my shoelaces a bit further. I might need another backpack in some weeks.

But I’m on the road.

To the discovery of happiness.

For more about the purpose of this blog see the page – guess what? – about.