Tag Archives: happiness

Chart of the Day, 1 Feb 2015: More Thoughts on Happiness, Tsipras and the Greeks

Yesterday, I referenced the OECD’s publication “How Was Life? Global Well-Being since 1820“. While it is still early days, it is encouraging that the OECD has started to treat GDP and well-being separately as seen in the OECD chart below (click for larger image):

OECD Framework for Measuring Well-Being jpeg

This is progress: for many year happiness studies and subjective well-being were viewed as being the domain of eccentrics and cranks, and certainly no subject for such a serious organisation as the OECD. One person who has done more than any other to help create the shift in perspective is Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Veenhoven is a vocal advocate of a rigorous evidence-based approach to happiness studies. Further, to encourage and help nurture the discipline, he founded the World Database of Happiness, which acts as a clearing house and repository for happiness data and its associated literature. For example, type in “Happiness in Greece” and you can find a time series like this (click for larger image):

Happiness in Greece jpeg

Veenhoven is the first to admit that his discipline is still young, and there are numerous blanks to be filled. Yet he feels that politicians can already find tentative answers as to what would make their electorates more happy–if they could be bothered to ask the right questions.

With this in mind, the rise of new non-mainstream parties across Europe can be seen as a reaction to the falling levels of happiness experienced by large sections of the population. And this, in turn, is not just a reflection of economic hardship. Rather, it also mirrors the loss of agency, or the ability to shape one’s life, felt by an increasing share of both the working and middle classes.

Alexis Tsipras of Syriza in Greece and Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain have been tapping into this angst. My hope is that they then forge policies that underpin happiness. For example, insecurity is a happiness killer. The burgeoning precariat, created by 21st century technology coupled with 21st century capitalism, should have some predictability given back to their lives. Nonetheless, Veenhoven points out that hard left ideas produced some of the worst regimes possible in the 20th century happiness-wise. High happiness requires personal choice and control, not things necessarily fostered by interventionist states.

I wish an ideology would emerge that harnesses technology and markets to promote genuine human flourishing. Such an ideology would take a very nuanced approach to economic growth, but would not necessarily be labelled ‘left’. I find it extraordinary that post the Great Recession, most western democracies are still run by centre or centre-right neoliberal elites. Secular stagnation and falling medium wages would suggest that the present socio-economic model isn’t working very well.

Given these facts, I would have hoped that a vibrant ideological alternative would have emerged (or at least old parties would have started wearing new clothes). In the UK, the early coalition government, with its green agenda and community-based concept of the Big Society, looked like it was evolving (at least partly) to reflect the new economic and social realities. Unfortunately, such fresh thinking has been progressively dropped, leaving a party closer to a Thatcher-style political ideal more than anything else.

Meanwhile, in southern Europe, my fear is that what Tsipras and Iglesias end up offering is recycled 20th century socialism. As I see it, that ideology is no longer fit for purpose in tackling our challenges either.

Going back to Veenhoven, if you want to hear a state of play on what determines life satisfaction, watch a lecture given by him here:

Chart of the Day, 31 Jan 2015: Happy Danes, Sad Greeks

The Atlantic has just published a fabulous article entitled “The Danish Don’t Have the Secret to Happiness“.  It is a response to a myriad of charts that look like this (taken from a tongue in cheek article in the British Medical Journal that The Atlantic references):

Life Satisfaction jpeg

Michael Booth, the author of the Atlantic article, is a Danish happiness cynic, questioning the happy state of Denmark on three fronts. He posits that

1. Danish happiness is a false construct arising from low expectations,

2. the boring nature of Danes allows them to remain happy, and

3. their smugness will ultimately lead to the nation’s final demise.

The low expectations argument is a restatement of what the happiness economist Caroline Graham calls the ‘happy peasants and miserable millionaires’ paradox (see, for example, here). According to her, our happiness set point can be a function of our surroundings.

While the research confirms the stable patterns in the determinants of happiness worldwide, it also shows that there is a remarkable human capacity to adapt to both prosperity and adversity. Thus, people in Afghanistan are as happy as Latin Americans – above the world average – and Kenyans are as satisfied with their healthcare as Americans. Crime makes people unhappy, but it matters less to happiness when there is more of it; the same goes for both corruption and obesity. Freedom and democracy make people happy, but they matter less when these goods are less common. The bottom line is that people can adapt to tremendous adversity and retain their natural cheerfulness, while they can also have virtually everything – including good health – and be miserable.

Indeed, an individual’s happiness set point can not only be a function of relative health, wealth, beauty and so on relative to one’s peers but also the same yardsticks measured against one’s past life. So how about the Greeks? Are they adapting to their new straightened circumstances? According to OECD data, the answer must be “no” or at least “not yet”. From the “How’s Life in Greece, May 2014” survey, life satisfaction comes in at around 4.7 out of 10, which puts Greece at the bottom of the OECD (here).

Further, while life satisfaction can be dubbed a function of the remembering self (when I sit down in a chair and think of my life, am I satisfied), people’s happiness as also related to their experiencing self (using the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s terminology– see my post here). In short, am I cold, hungry, stressed, anxious , sad and/or in pain; or am I warm, replete, joyful, relaxed, rested and/or content? The OECD reports that only 52% of Greeks report having more positive than negative experiences in an average day (the lowest in the OECD) compared with an average of 76%.

For Greece to live with long-term austerity, Angela Merkel and the Troika must believe that Greek happiness indicators must, in the course of time, reset upwards. Unfortunately, they haven’t been reading the happiness literature in sufficient depth. While life satisfaction can adapt, adaption is generally a reaction to a set of circumstances that you have grown up with. Such forms of satisfaction lack what Graham calls “agency” or “the capacity to pursue a fulfilling and purposeful life”.  And once you have tasted “agency” you don’t want to lose it.

The appeal of Syriza, and its slogan of “hope”, is its potential to restore a degree of agency to the Greek people. Whether they can deliver this agency is a different question. In reality, income and wealth bestow a high degree of agency since they give us the financial wherewithal to make choices. However, agency can still arise from non-financial means, such as having the ability to adopt a non-conventional lifestyle, move from one area to another, change career, better one’s education and gain access to art and culture.  To stop disillusionment setting in, Syriza will have to put much effort into the fostering of such sources of low cost agency.

Happiness can be viewed from other vantage points too. Many scholars of happiness have identified eudaimonia as a source of happiness. This is sometimes described as human flourishing, but I prefer to view it as the sense of participating in and contributing to something greater than one’s own life. Past political movements have tapped into eudaimonia to give their followers a sense of shared propose and even destiny–sometimes, of course, to disastrous effect. However, at its best, it can be a fuel for transformational social movements that enthuse and enrich those advancing the cause as much as the final beneficiaries. Alexis Tsipras has certainly given Greeks a vision of change that could stimulate eudaimonia, but whether this can morph into a philosophy or ideal that has some staying power beyond the post-election honeymoon is a different question.

Meanwhile, for Danes seeking eudaimonia, a temporary move to Greece would not be a bad idea. But remember that the Danes always have the option of returning to Denmark and restocking on more mundane sources of happiness. The Greeks don’t.

Links for the Week Ending 6 April 2014

  • The second instalment of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), titled “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability”, was released in Tokyo on the 31st March and can be found here. The “Summary for Policymakers” can be downloaded here. On page 19 of the Summary, the IPCC states that “the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of around 2 degrees Celsius are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (± one standard deviation around the mean)” with the risk for higher rather than lower losses. The report then goes on to say “Losses accelerate with greater warming, but few quantitative estimates have been completed for additional warming around 3 degrees Celsius or above”. Given that it looks almost impossible that we will constrain warming to 2 degrees Celsius based on the current CO2 emission path and the installed fossil fuel energy infrastructure base, the world really is going into an unknown world of risk with climate change.
  • A key area of economic loss from climate change relates to drought. To date, most models have focussed on precipitation as the principal driver of drought. A new paper by Cook et al in the journal Climate Dynamics titled “Global Warming and Drought in the 21st Century” gives greater emphasis to the role of evaporation (more technically, potential evapotranspiration or PET) in drought. Through better modelling of PET, the paper sees 43% of the global land area experiencing significant dryness by end of 21st century, up from 23% for models that principally looked at precipitation alone. A non-technical summary of the paper can be found here.
  • Meanwhile, the general public has lapsed back into apathy around the whole climate change question, partially due to the hiatus period in temperature rise we are currently experiencing. However, evidence is slowly mounting that we could be about to pop out of the hiatus on the back of a strong El Nino event (periods of high global temperature are linked to El Ninos). Weather Underground has been doing a good job of tracking this developing story, with another guest post from Dr. Michael Ventrice (here) explaining the major changes in the Pacific Ocean that have taken place over the last two months and which are setting us up for an El Nino event later in the spring or summer.
  • Changing subject, The Economist magazine ran a special report last week on robotics titled “Immigrants from the Future“. In some ways, I came away less impressed by the capabilities of the existing generation of robots than more.
  • I often blog on happiness issues (most recently here). This may seem strange for a blog whose stated focus is on such global risks as resource depletion and climate change, but I don’t see the contradiction. For me, much of our striving to extract and burn as much fossil fuel as possible comes through the pursuit of goals that don’t necessarily make us more happy. A new book by Zachary Karabell titled “The Leading Indicators” adds a new dimension to this argument. Karabell argues that over the last century or so we have created a series of statistics that are more than pure measurements of economic success. In short, they are ideology laden more than ideology free. Political parties set out their manifestos based on a mishmash of economic achievements and goals based on GDP, unemployment, inflation, the trade balance, interest rates, the strength of their national currency and so on and so forth. But these number encapsulate only part of well-being. Yet such statistics totally dominate political discourse because that is how we have been taught to keep score in a modern capitalist economy. As we career towards extremely dangerous climate change, I think it is time that we recognise these economic indicators for what they frequently have become: false gods. Karabell has an article in The Atlantic setting out the book’s main ideas here and there is a good review in The Week here.
  • Rising inequality has been one of the major economic development over the past 40 years. I am a great fan of the Word Bank economist Branko Milanovic, who wrote a wonderful book called “The Haves and Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality“, in which he pulls together many strands of the inequality literature within a global context. I blogged on this once here. A nice complement to this book is the new web site titled Chartbook of Economic Inequality, which has been put together by two academic economists Anthony Atkinson and Salvatore Morelli. If you like infographics, you will love this site.

On Sustainability and Happiness (Part 2)

In my last post (here), I looked at the mounting evidence that GDP per head is correlated with happiness when tracked for individual countries through time—a finding that goes against the previous orthodoxy that went under the moniker of the Easterlin Paradox (if we all get richer, none of us get happier).

The U.S. and China are sometimes argued as key countries that show no such improvement in happiness, but anti-Easterliners explain away the U.S. by pointing to stagnant median income growth through time (GDP per head has risen, but it has all gone to an elite, so most people haven’t secured any income-induced extra happiness), and view the China findings as irrelevant due to a lack of sufficient data.

The situation is ironic since it is only recently that advocates of the Easterlin Paradox have made headway in transferring their ideas out of academia and into the public domain, so catching the attention of politicians. Here is the economist Andrew Oswald in an Op-Ed in The Financial Times in 2006 (here):

But today there is much statistical and laboratory ­evidence in favour of a heresy: once a country has filled its larders there is no point in that nation becoming richer.

The hippies, the Greens, the road protesters, the downshifters, the slow-food movement – all are having their quiet revenge. Routinely derided, the ideas of these down-to-earth philosophers are being confirmed by new statistical work by psychologists and economists.

Justin Wolfers, the Easterlin Paradox’s great nemesis, would beg to differ. Accordingly to him, GDP per capita has captured human welfare as encapsulated in the idea of self-evaluated happiness quite well. Indeed, he views the happiness literature as maturing to a stage where it aligns well with GDP and, indeed, the old stalwarts of economic analysis ‘utility‘ and its first cousin ‘revealed preference‘—as such happiness has become respectably boring and quite neo-classical economics in tone.

“Utility’ and ‘revealed preference’ are the two trump cards of orthodox economists when confronted by arguments from non-economists that money can’t buy you happiness. Such economists will say “don’t listen to what people say, look at what they do”. And what people frequently do is buy, buy, buy—or work like hell so they are able to buy, buy, buy— to the exclusion of all those things that are supposed to bring happiness like hanging out with the kids, communing with nature, going for a jog, catching up with old school friends and taking up charity work.

Nonetheless, while Wolfers appears to relish his bar fight with Richard Easterlin, he has been very reluctant to take on the titan of behavioural economics, Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman. In Wolfers last major paper on happiness written with his wife Betsey Stevenson, the conclusion purposefully avoided any confrontation with Kahneman:

To be clear, our analysis in this paper has been confined to the sorts of evaluative measures of life satisfaction and happiness that have been the focus of proponents of the (modified) Easterlin hypothesis. In an interesting recent contribution, Kahneman and Deaton (2010) have shown that in the United States, people earning above $75,000 do not appear to enjoy either more positive affect nor less negative affect than those earning just below that. We are intrigued by these findings, although we conclude by noting that they are based on very different measures of well-being, and so they are not necessarily in tension with our results.

This is interesting, because Kahneman says some quite specific things about the use of the word ‘utility’ by economists in his magnum opus “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

As economists and decision theorists apply the term (utility), it means “wantability”—and I have called it decision utility. Expected utility theory, for example, is entirely about the rules of rationality that should govern decision utilities; it has nothing to say about hedonic experiences.

Kahneman goes on to make a distinction between the ‘remembering self’ and the ‘experiencing self’. The latter is concerned with the immediate emotions of joy, love, hate, sadness and so on and is completely distinct from the former’s happiness calculus gleaned from a balancing of a perceived life’s worth.

The book highlights an example of this dichotomy: the contemplative question of whether one’s happiness would increase if one moved to sunny California from the weather-challenged Midwest. The example is played out as a husband and wife spat. The wife believes that all will alter in a move to a sunnier clime, the curmudgeon of a  husband says nothing will change. And on this occasion, the data suggests that Kahneman is right. Weather (and climate) is the wallpaper of our lives: it is something that we will barely give thought to for more than a few minutes per day—and most often we see it as a given in our lives: neither a subtracter of happiness nor an additor.

Here is Kahneman filling out the different concepts of happiness:

So what happens if we start to measure experiential happiness rather than remembered happiness? The former is sometimes divided into positive affect—joy, love, hope, amusement and so on—and negative affect—pain, sadness, hate, regret and so on. What we find out, accordingly to Kahneman, is that the correlation between the remembering self and the experiential self is only 0.5. Events that will maximise self-evaluation of happiness will not necessarily maximise experiences. That is why people choose to take a job with a long commute or work for a bulge bracket investment bank like Goldman Sachs, even though both choices may be very negative in terms of experiential happiness.

In a classic paper with Angus Deaton, Kahneman actually teased out the impact of a rise in income for the remembering self and experiencing self. He came up with this chart (click for larger image) from this seminal 2010 paper (here):

Positive affect, blue affect, stress and life evaluation jpeg

And for those who like numbers, we have this table below from the same paper. What you see is a reasonably high correlation between income and how we perceive our lives (the Cantril ladder of life satisfaction from one to 10) but a very low correlation with positive affect (joyish kind of stuff) and blue affect (sadness kind of stuff).

Life evaluation jpeg

So Justin Wolfers may have felt he had won the war, but has he in fact just won an insignificant battle? More to come on this.