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Is the USA moving toward a ‘happiness index’?

August 6, 2012

Which makes you happier — a pay raise or job security? Another TV or a friend next door? A bigger house or more free time?

By Sam Ward, USA TODAY

Most countries measure how well they’re doing in stark numbers: money earned, electronics sold and homes built. But an increasing number are asking: Shouldn’t we find out how happy people are with all this stuff?

The United States, home to the smiley face and theHappy Meal, is attempting to do just that, responding to a movement that has been hailed as revolutionary and derided as “silly” or worse.

Several cities and states are already looking into citizen well-being or floating happiness initiatives. Yet the real game-changer could be a federally funded panel that is studying whether there’s a better way to tally prosperity. The panel, which started work in December and will report its findings next year, will recommend whether measures of happiness (and misery) should be added to the equation. And if so, how?

Today, major indicators such as the gross domestic product are used to take the economic temperature of the USA. Indeed, the release last week of second-quarterGDP numbers (an anemic 1.5% rate) and this Friday’s jobs report instantly will become gauges of this nation’s health as well as fodder in a presidential race framed by economic issues.

But even before the economic crisis took hold, Americans faced a possible paradox that suggests money cannot buy happiness: U.S. wealth per capita has soared in recent decades (if not in recent years), but Gallup and other surveys suggest Americans might not be any happier.

World’s happiest countries

1. Denmark

2. Finland

3. Norway

4. Netherlands

5. Canada

6. Switzerland

7. Sweden

8. New Zealand

9. Australia

10. Ireland

11. United States

12. Costa Rica

13. Austria

14. Israel

15. Belgium

Source: Gallup World Poll

The practical impact of the panel’s work would be to figure out whether a broader GDP could better guide public policy. For example, if commuters prefer riding the train to fighting traffic in a car, perhaps public transit should be bolstered. Or if patients value pain management more than costlier medical treatments, care considerations could get a second look.

For these reasons, states and cities are also putting well-being — a broader version of happiness — on the public agenda. Vermont enacted legislation in May to compile a new measure of the state’s “economic, environmental, and societal well-being,” akin to Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator that includes the value of housework and the cost of lost leisure time.

Civic groups in several U.S. cities — led by Seattle in 2010 and followed by Wisconsin’s Eau Claire and California’s Nevada City — have launched happiness initiatives. They ask residents to take a survey and use the results to offer community activities intended to lift spirits.

The Boston suburb of Somerville, Mass. — where happiness-inducing Marshmallow Fluff was invented — aims to develop its own index. It sent residents a happiness survey as part of its Census forms last year and plans to follow up with door-to-door interviews this fall .

“There are better things to spend money on,” such as children’s programs, says Claudie Urquijo, who works in a Somerville real estate office. She says that because happiness fluctuates, it’s difficult to measure.

Gil Barbosa, a former truck driver who owns The Book Shop downtown, welcomes the effort. “It’s probably a good idea to gauge where people are,” he says. “It’s about community.”

This pursuit of a new measure of wealth also is gaining ground worldwide for both environmental and social welfare reasons. Some see it as a possible way to improve health and social services. Others argue that economic growth, especially in developed countries, is harming the environment without necessarily helping people.

In late June, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development called for a broader index than GDP that would include environmental and social impacts, echoing a U.N. resolution last summer that said GDP does not “adequately reflect” people’s well-being. In April, a U.N. meeting discussed the Gross National Happiness index used by Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation with a population of just over 700,000 (and with the smallest Olympic delegation in London: 2 people).

In fact, the movement is also sprouting roots in the United Kingdom, which is co-funding the U.S. panel and has added four well-being questions to its national statistics, including: “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” and “How happy did you feel yesterday?”

Officials from other countries — including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand and South Korea— want to join the movement to look beyond the numbers. In December, Japan unveiled a set of draft indicators that includes women’s satisfaction and men’s participation in child care.

The groundswell occurred after Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz led a panel in France during the depths of the global economic crisis. It concluded in a September 2009 report that “the time is ripe … to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.”

Skepticism abounds

Yet defining, let alone measuring, happiness (and its counterpoint, misery) is no simple matter. Critics scoff at the idea, suggesting that it’s a fool’s errand.

“The happiness movement is at best utopian; at worst, it’s silly and oppressive,” economics analyst Robert Samuelson wrote in a syndicated newspaper column in April. He argues that the “pursuit of happiness” might be a right in the Declaration of Independence, but its achievement is “not an entitlement.”

Steve Landefeld, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, is also skeptical. “The challenges in measuring subjective well-being are huge,” he says. “We’re much better served to use our statistical resources to extend existing GDP to capture economic welfare.”

Landefeld says the bureau is working to develop measures on income distribution as well as the environmental costs of producing energy.

In other federal efforts this year, the National Institute of Aging is including a greater number of well-being questions on time-use surveys gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau is asking participants how they felt during different activities such as commuting or eating lunch.

“We’re interested in not only survival but also quality of life,” the aging institute’s Richard Suzman says, referring to how healthy patients are after medical treatment. He says, however, that “a good deal of research” remains to be done. Gallup, for example, has found that asking people about politics before asking them about happiness lowers their self-reported scores for life satisfaction.

Even happiness researchers acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.

“Happiness means many things,” says Arthur Stone, professor of psychiatry at New York’s Stony Brook University and chairman of the U.S. panel, co-funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. “We’re not even sure we’re happy, so to speak, with the term ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being,’ ” he says, wondering if they sound “too new-agey.”

He says he understands the skepticism. As a result, Stone says the panel is being cautious and looking as much “at the opposite side of the coin — people’s pain and suffering” — to guide end-of-life and other health care decisions.

“We’re a study group. … We know a lot, but no one’s ready to say there’s just one metric,” says fellow panel member Carol Graham, a scholar at Brookings Institution and author ofThe Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being.

“There’s nothing political about it,” Graham says of the panel’s work, describing it as “boringly scientific.”

The panel has an indirect link to the White House. Before becoming President Obama‘s chief economic adviser, Alan Krueger co-wrote key papers on the issue while at Princeton University and worked with BLS to add subjective well-being questions to its time-use surveys.

“I don’t talk about happiness, because it rubs some people the wrong way to think that government is in the business of measuring this,” says Eric Zencey of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute of Ecological Economics, who is working on Vermont’s new index. Nevertheless, he says countries need to move beyond GDP.

An idea with a past

A new indicator is a decades-old idea. In a March 1968 speech, Robert F. Kennedy said the gross national product, GDP’s predecessor, counts many things such as jails, cigarette advertising, nuclear warheads and armored police cars. But he said it “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages … it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In 1972, Bhutan’s king called for a Gross National Happiness index, saying people’s happiness did not depend solely on money. In 2008, the nation began setting policies, based partly on the index, that look at many factors including life satisfaction, mental health, safety and literacy. For example, Bhutan limits tourism, bans the sale of tobacco and, beginning in June, bars motorists from town centers on “pedestrian’s day” (every Tuesday).

To coincide with the Bhutan-led U.N. Conference on Happiness in April, the first World Happiness Report was published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, an eco-minded research group. The report found that higher incomes — not surprisingly — boost well-being in poor countries. In rich countries, however, more money made less of a difference. Other factors — political freedom, social support, job security, health, stable families — often mean more.

So where will you find the happiest people on Earth? Of 156 countries, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands and Canada are the happiest, according to the Gallup World Poll that asked people to rate the quality of their lives on a 0 (worst possible) to 10 (best possible) scale. The bottom five are all poor African nations. (Bhutan was not surveyed.)

The U.S. ranks 11th highest.

“It’s the richest country, but not the happiest. … There’s room for improvement,” says co-author John Helliwell, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia. The report says U.S. GDP per capita has tripled since 1960, but Americans’ happiness has barely budged in polling by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the General Social Survey.

Even the age-old question about whether money can buy happiness is up for debate. In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin found that happiness stagnates after a certain point, while a 2008 University of Pennsylvania study said happiness rises with GDP, even in rich countries. A 2010 Princeton study found that life satisfaction rises with income but that everyday happiness — another measure of well-being — changes little once a person reaches $75,000 a year.

“Happiness is largely about trust and the ties that bind,” says Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Weiner, whose odyssey took him to nine countries, says he found societal happiness in both wealthy European countries and in South Asia’s Bhutan, where life expectancy is 67 and annual per capita income hovers just below $2,000.

Helliwell looks on the bright side, as befits a happiness researcher. He says though the U.S. doesn’t top his report’s list, “it’s 11 out of 156, so it’s not so bad.”


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