On happiness

I enjoyed reading Ethan Zuckerman’s post Who’s happy and why?. I suggest you read it first before continuing here.

A country/person’s happiness has always seemed immensely more important to me than other measurements, such as GDP, possessions, and so on. I remember playing a game called Careers as a child. At the beginning of the game, each player chose a combination of fame, wealth and happiness as a target to achieve in their career. I could never understand why anyone would choose anything else but happiness, as wealth and fame at the expense of happiness made no sense to me. The concept pervades ethical philosophy, utilitarianism, for example, aiming to achieve happiness for the greatest number.

So I’ve been intrigued to see the spate of focus on happiness in the media. It even made the cover of the Economist. Measurement is still tricky, and the subjective nature of the techniques may not appeal to those looking for objective truth (just don’t think that the economic stats are objective truth either!).

The data Ethan used comes from the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS), which asks subjects to evaluate the following the following statements:

  1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  2. The conditions of my life are excellent.
  3. I am satisfied with my life.
  4. So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

The map produced from this data shows North America, Northern Europe and Australia as the happiest parts of the world, and much of Africa as rather unhappy. Denmark is the happiest, and Burundi the unhappiest.

I have concerns with the questions, as well as with the results. There are other surveys which produce quite different results. For example, the Happy Planet Index shows the USA close to the bottom. This survey though, takes into account how much a country’s lifestyle infringes on the opportunity of future people and people in other countries to do the same. Which is why the USA appears near the bottom, even though its people rate as relatively satisfied. Even though that principle makes sense to include, it’ll muddy the results here, so I’m going to disregard that survey for now, and just focus on happiness.

Another survey, from New Scientist, also attempting to quantify life satisfaction, lists Nigeria as the happiest nation, and Romania as the least. The Nigeria result is an anomaly, as Nigeria is way down the list in the SWLS results.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the methodology used, nor find the full survey results, so I can’t see where South Africa fits on the New Scientist scale.

But leaving aside the multiple means of measurement, let’s look at an alternative definition. From the Art of Happiness, by Howard Cutler, based on conversations with the Dalai Lama:

  1. The purpose of life is happiness
  2. Happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than external conditions, circumstances or events – at least once one’s basic survival needs are met.
  3. Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook.
  4. The key to happiness is in our own hands

It’s the second statement that’s important here. Happiness is determined by our state of mind more than external conditions. And for that reason measurement is much easier to do subjectively than objectively.

Also implied in that is what happiness is not. It’s not pleasure. It’s not possessions.

The SWLS statements seem to miss the mark – the Dalai Lama’s understanding seems much deeper. The fourth SWLS question gets alarm bells ringing. So far I have gotten the most important things I want in life. So often I hear statements such as I will be happy if I have…, the object being something like an increase in salary, a lover, a possession, and so on. I believe that’s a trap, and the recipient is never happier when this thing arrives in their life. There may be a fleeting pleasure, but, then the focus shifts to the next target. Now the statement could be interpreted to include abstract things as well, but I’d imagine that many filling out the survey would take it to mean the material only. What about If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing. Does that really apply to happy people? Let’s take Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, who I wrote about last week, and seems to radiate blissful happiness. He was forced to flee his homeland, and of 300 colleages departing together, only 13 arrived alive. Many members of his family died. Could he really strongly agree with the statement I would change almost nothing. Again, you could interpret the words in different ways, but a casual reading tends to give too much emphasis to external events, when what’s important is our own response to external events beyond our control.

I strongly believe compassion is an important element of happiness. The Dalai Lama was asked Are you ever lonely, and replied, simply, No. Being quizzed on this surprising answer, he attributed it to a lack of fear (lonely people can be held back from connecting with others because of fear of ridicule or judgement), as well as compassion. By feeling generally warm and positive to others, it’s much easier to make meaningful connections.

Getting back to the methodology, there’re a number of inherent problems in subjective measurement. People confuse happiness and pleasure, or possessions and pleasure. But if the test seems to do the same thing, it’s missing the mark.

By measuring compassion (which perhaps can be done a little more objectively, looking at what individuals and countries give each other) there may be another angle to take in the measurement of happiness. Although maybe that just creates a whole new set of complications.

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1 comment

  1. Ian, I think you’re right on in questioning whether the questions in the SWLS are worthwhile ones. They’re not my questions, just to be very clear – I’m just playing some statistical games on data generated by a researcher in the UK. He, in turn, is just aggregating and visualizing data from dozens of other researchers, all of whom are using the SWLS, which has become the default tool in the world of “happiness studies”, for better or for worse…

    As for the Nigeria result – I read that paper as well when it appeared in New Scientist. It was a very small study – 30 nations in total, I believe. That may explain why the results diverge from the results reported in the UK study.

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