PoW: Why are national happiness levels always so flat?

Yesterday, I went to the British Academy, to hear Richard Easterlin, the father of happiness economics, present his latest thinking. Sir Gus O’Donnell, the head of the civil service, was in the audience, and he made a very interesting point, which I will come to. Easterlin asked the provocative question: does higher income raise happiness in poorer countries? His answer was ‘no, as far as the evidence goes’. He showed graph after graph of transition economies where the income has been rising sharply over the last decade, while the happiness levels remain more or less flat.
He focused on China, a country “where the rate of economic growth has been completely unprecedented, at almost 10% a year for the last decade. If any country would show an improvement in happiness, it would be China.” But it doesn’t. Another flat line. The only countries which showed noticeable drops and rises in happiness levels, as far as I could tell, where post-Communist countries, whose happiness levels showed a clear (and understandable) drop after the collapse of communism, and then a steady rise after that, only to flatten out again.

This famous flattening of average happiness levels despite rises in income has been called the Easterlin Paradox, and is perhaps the single most influential graph for happiness economics. It is used, over and over again, as evidence that governments should not be focusing on raising income, but instead on raising happiness.

But here’s my question: do any policies have any impact on national happiness levels? Perhaps the reason for the flatlines in happiness that we see in country after country is evidence not that we’re pursuing the wrong policies, but simply that happiness questionnaires are not very sensitive to policy changes. Think about all the different political, economic and cultural changes over the last 50 years in the UK, and yet our happiness levels remain flat. Why is that? I suggest it’s because the measurement technique – asking people to rate their happiness between one and ten – simply isn’t good enough to pick up changes in quality of life over time. We adapt to our situation, and except in moments of extreme crisis, we say ‘oh, about a seven’.

What do happiness economists expect? Do they think that, if governments pursue the right policies, the public will go from a seven, to an eight, until eventually, after say 30 years, we will all be shouting ‘Ten!’ before ascending in rapture unto heaven? Of course, given such a bounded numerical scale, people are going to say ‘about a seven’, even if their lives have actually got better or worse over time. We forget the bad times, and we also forget the good times. Our daily well-being is probably protected by our forgetfulness and our ability to adapt.

Happiness economists try to get around this by using country comparisons. ‘Look’, they say, ‘at how Scandinavian countries are typically happier than Anglo-Saxon countries. This is because they spend more on health, education and unemployment benefits. If we did the same, we’d be happier.’ I personally am all for higher education and health spending. But that sort of cross-country comparison completely ignores cultural differences.

To be convinced, I’d like to see examples within a particular country where national happiness levels rise or fall depending on particular policies. Do such examples exist? “Yes”, Easterlin replied. “There are clear links between employment and happiness levels in countries. Unemployment in the US has dropped markedly in the last three years, and happiness levels in 2010 were at their lowest for many years.”

At that point, the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was listening attentively in the audience, joined in. He said: “One of the things we’re trying to figure out is the adaptation effects. There’s a new paper out by Angus Deaton, which looks at the effect of the recession of US happiness levels, and it shows that happiness levels are already back to their pre-crisis levels, despite unemployment still being much higher than it was. There’s even evidence that people adapt quite quickly to traumas like losing an arm. So what does that mean for public policy?”

It’s worth having a look at the paper O’Donnell mentioned, because it is quite damning for happiness economics. It finds, for example, that subjective well-being (SWB) measurements seem only very slightly correlated with the doubling of unemployment in the US, while there are clear spikes on Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Deaton notes that subjective well-being levels seem to be very correlated with stock market levels, and that perhaps they are driven by the same short-term factors like headlines, holidays and the weather, rather than serious policy changes.

Deaton writes: “While it is conceivable that, as is sometimes argued for the stock market, the SWB measures are giving an accurate take on expected future well-being, it seems more plausible that, like the stock market, they have actually very little to do with well-being. As McFadden suggests in comments on this paper, we may be looking at “cognitive bubbles” that are essentially irrelevant for any concept of well-being that we care about. They still have a long way to go in establishing themselves as good time-series monitors for the aggregate economy. In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St Valentine’s Day than to a doubling of unemployment, are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread.”

This is not to say that I think the whole ‘politics of well-being’ project is pointless. Empirical studies of what factors lead to flourishing can and should influence policies. I’m just not that convinced by broader arguments based on national happiness levels. The measuring instrument is simply too blunt to be of any real use to policy makers. However, it may be some use in more local, focused surveys where one can use more nuanced empirical methods.

Here’s a related article I wrote recently, on the civil service’s role in the politics of well-being, and how it relates to the history of the civil service and its relationship to moral philosophy.

*****
In other news:

Steve Fuller, a socio-biologist at Warwick University, has a new book out on transhumanism, called Humanity 2.0. I saw him give a great talk and panel discussion yesterday evening – where the science fiction writer China Mieville gave Fuller’s ideas quite a kicking. Mieville struck me as a very cool, intelligent, tattoed techno-Marxist type, I’m looking forward to reading one of his novels. Which should I start with?

There was a lot of talk about how our bodies can be enhanced through technology. There’s the example of the ‘bladerunner’, Oscar Pistorius, who is fighting a legal battle to be able to compete not in the Paralympics but the actual Olympics. I wondered if in 100 years everyone will watch the Paralympics, where highly enhanced humans compete, and the Olympics would be a quaint niche event for retro-purists. But in fact, Olympic athletes are already enhanced, not just through chemicals but through equipment: how much of Michael Phelps’ record-breaking in 2008 was down to him, and how much down to the LZR Racer suit he wore?

But Fuller was not just talking about physical enhancement, but mental or even spiritual enhancement. It made me wonder – could consciousness ever be enhanced by technology or drugs? I think we might have tried that in the 1960s, with the mass consumption of LSD, and I’m not sure it made any permanent beneficial changes (though it did put a lot of people in the funny farm). Perhaps technology can enhance the computational aspects of the mind (speed of thought etc) and I guess it could ‘enhance’ our emotional lives – we all take regular doses of Ecstasy to become more warm and empathetic. You could, in fact, imagine a new field called Positive Psychiatry – like Positive Psychology, it would argue that psychiatry should not focus simply on the negative mission of healing sicknesses, but also embrace the positive mission of aiding human flourishing. Through drugs!

My problem with that, I guess, is ultimately a spiritual one. I still cling to the quaint belief that we’re here on the planet to advance morally, over the course of many lifetimes, and that you can’t ‘cheat’ this system through ‘life-hacks’ or ‘bolt-ons’. Rather than trying to cut out, sedate or lobotomize our animal imperfections, I agree with Carl Jung that only the whole psyche can advance. That means, to morally advance, you have to recognize, examine, and work with the least attractive and most savage parts of the psyche (what Jung called the Shadow). Otherwise, I think you end up with a peculiarly flattened, compartmentalized and even psychotic self.

I know it’s boring to bring in the Nazis, but think of how the Nazi quest for the superman ended up by projecting all its sense of weakness and imperfection onto the Jews, and then attempting to exterminate it. I hope it’s not banal or insensitive to bring the Holocaust into the debate…I’m just saying that the danger of the quest for the technologically-enhanced perfect self is that you end up running away from your own imperfections, or projecting them into others and then trying to destroy them. Jean Vanier, the Catholic philosopher and humanitarian, is very good on this – have a look at this video except from an interview I did with him last year.

I asked Vanier if we try to engineer humanity, will we become more and more intolerant of imperfection – ours and other people’s. He says: “The big problem today is there will soon be a huge population with Alzheimer’s. The challenge is not how to prolong death, but how to accept fragility. The whole engineering thing is about control. And yet we cannot control our lives. Look at Hitler and Stalin, and their schemes for engineering. At the end of our life, Stalin was drunk all the time. Hitler was on drugs. Because they knew they could control things at one time, but now they couldn’t. So they had to look into death, they had to look into weakness. It’s better to look into it right at the beginning.”

See you next week,

Jules

Comments:

  • Jayarava says:

    What do we even mean by happiness? It's such a vague term. And since we only seem to be able ask "are you happy at the moment" it seems like an incredibly blunt instrument. We must be able to do better than this!

    And by the way. Why is anyone surprised that the average happiness level is always in the middle?

  • Lisa S. says:

    Re: national happiness levels. I keep posing this question of various people and have never received a satisfactory answer. Perhaps you can help (or else please point out that my question is utterly stupid and I should stop asking it…)

    The scales for happiness are finite – usually 0-10. The scales for income are infinite, even if we always use year X dollars (but, of course, according to which cost of living index, but that's another digression).

    Isn't anyone else worried that we are trying to correlate, or worse, come up with causal relationships, between one measure that is finite and another that knows no bounds? This doesn't seem right to me.

    Let alone the fact that, given a 1-10 scale, there are certain inherent human biases for how people will respond. There is a whole body of research on how people respond to Likert scales, etc.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Completely agree with both of you.

    Lisa, your question isn't stupid at all, other people are also asking it, and I dont think Ive heard a good answer. I made the same point in my piece – do happiness economists think we're going to rise and rise up the scale until we're all as happy as we can possibly be?

    It astonishes me how many economists – good ones – have embraced this whole pursuit. Its the emperors new clothes.

    all best

    Jules

  • disinfected says:

    on my course, we learnt that to improve the wellbeing of people with learning disabilities, for example, facilitating their participation in the community was an aim. to extrapolate this, surely this is an aim of everybody? i think deaton etc unnecessarily complicates the issue. to me, it is quite simple, it is to be a respected/accepted member of society which fosters self-acceptance and self-respect. in order to manifest this respect, we have to recognise ourselves for what we are, warts and all, and then build structures that capitalise on the good and can cope with the natural and not so beneficial deviations, but all the time with an overall love and admiration for the human race, rather than the unhelpful idea of original sin.

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