Archive for the 'Happiness & well-being' Category

Does winning the lottery make you more happy, or less stressed?

This week’s $100 million lottery prize prompted ABC radio to ring me about the research finding that winning the lottery doesn’t make you happier. I declined the interview after discovering that I would be talking live to the nation’s insomniacs at 4.20am next Sunday morning (though did suggest a solution to this problem – find an overseas interviewee in a day time zone).

Though one early paper – which is cited in books on subjective well-being published up until a few years ago – did find some evidence for negative effects of lottery wins, it was never an especially strong finding. Winners in the sample experienced lesser ‘mundane’ pleasures than members of a control group, but their present ‘general happiness’ was higher. The authors of this paper also stressed that their survey was at a single point in time, and could not do genuine before and after tests of happiness changes.

This later paper by Andrew Oswald was able to use the British Household Panel Survey to do a genuine before and after examination of lottery winners. It found that
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Do people mistakenly prioritise money-making in their lives? #2

Commenter Russell isn’t convinced by my survey evidence that the vast majority of people don’t rate making money as a top life priority. He argues that people may not tell the truth when asked questions in a survey. Maybe they don’t; maybe they don’t even recognise the truth about themselves.

But I still think my hypothesis is by far the more plausible one, and that the Schwartz/Eckersley/Russell [SER] hypothesis has no evidence beyond inferring attitudes from the consumer behaviour of other people.

Even if we start at this theoretical level, the SER thesis seems to me to be immediately in trouble. It requires that the desire for material things over-rides some hardwired aspects of human nature, such as the desires for intimacy, love, and companionship. While I imagine this is possible in some small number of individuals, it is hard to see how the ephemeral pleasures of shopping could cause a mass over-ride of the kind required.

Consistent with this theory, the behavioural evidence does not support the SER thesis. Read the rest of this entry »

Do people mistakenly prioritise money-making in their lives?

Happiness researchers are convinced that people in Western societies place too much emphasis on material goods and economic growth. There is the (ill-founded) claim, repeated in Schwartz’s Foreign Policy piece, that we believe GDP to be a proxy for broader well-being. The micro version of this claim, also made by Schwartz, is that we personally place too much emphasis on material goods:

But, consistent with a substantial body of research showing that we generally don’t know what’s good for us, when the money was flowing we substituted risk for security. We sacrificed time with friends and family to spend more time at work accumulating wealth and more time after work figuring out how to spend it. (emphasis added)

Richard Eckersley makes similar arguments in the local context:

The evidence shows material progress does not straightforwardly make us richer by giving us the freedom to live as we wish. Rather, it comes with an array of cultural and moral prerequisites and consequences, such as prioritising money and the things it buys. This affects how we think of the world and ourselves, and the choices we make. These choices are not optimising human health, wellbeing and potential

Of course, people make mistakes in their lives. But do most people really think that money is the route to happiness?
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Will the US recession change views on happiness?

The latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine has a series of short articles under the title The Next Big Thing: Why Bad Times Lead to Good Ideas.

Under the heading ‘Happiness’, Barry Schwartz offers us the cliches of the happiness research movement: that economists don’t know much about happiness, that we don’t know what’s good for us and pursue more work instead of more time with friends and family, and that GDP is ‘our principal yardstick of social welfare and social progress’.

From these propositions, Schwartz decides to advance this theory:

Financial necessity may give us the opportunity to discover that time spent with loved ones is much more satisfying than time spent with your 76-inch HDTV. Once the crisis lifts, we may not be tempted to go back to living the way we did before, if that’s even an option for those millions who are now losing their jobs, homes, and retirement accounts.

But it is more likely that the US recession will provide evidence against Schwartz’s theory.
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A neurotic reading of happiness research

Despite the huge and on-going advances of women by most objective indicators, feminism retains a neurotic aspect, an over-anxiety that the gains are going to be reversed.

One manifestation of this anxiety is strong reactions against even empirically true statements about gender, lest they conceal some normative agenda by the author, or suggest arguments that ‘traditional values’ conservatives might later use. I scored this kind of reaction last month. But I was being provocative and cannot complain that I got a response. But what did Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers do to deserve this spray in the Guardian, dutifully reprinted over the weekend in the Guardian of the south, aka The Age?

The prompt for the Guardian attack on Stevenson and Wolfers was the National Bureau of Economic Research publication of their research on the declining relative happiness of women, especially in the United States. I blogged on an earlier version of this paper in 2007.

The Stevenson and Wolfers paper is in standard NBER style, full of sentences like ‘the ordered probit normalizes the underlying distribution of happiness to have a standard deviation of one, and hence this shift amounts to about one-eighth of the cross-sectional standard deviation of happiness.’
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GDP and well-being

One irritating feature of the subjective well-being research is its preoccupation with GDP, or rather its preoccupation with what it thinks is our preoccupation with measuring production. It’s there again in the new economic foundation‘s recent National Accounts of Well-Being: Bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet.

The proposition that GDP cannot be used as an all-purpose proxy for societal well-being is a banality, not a critique. Nobody who believes that it is such a proxy is cited in this publication, and for good reason: nobody of any intellectual or political signficance (and quite possibly nobody at all) believes this to be the case. It is one of a vast number of statistical series collected and used in policy. Government policy is more likely to reduce than increase GDP through regulation and taxation steering resources away from their most productive uses.

The main point of National Accounts is to call for more regular collection of statistics on well-being, broadly defined. They’ve made a start with (in conjuction with Cambridge University) an interesting survey taking a multi-faceted look at well-being around Europe.
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Good political fortune not helping Democrat unhappiness

You’d think that these were happy times for the American left. The Bush Presidency is ending in dismal failure, as they always thought it would. The Democrat candidate for the Presidency is now a near-certainty, and better still he is an African-American near-certainty. They’ll control the Congress. ‘Neolilberalism’ is being blamed for the financial market meltdown, and left-wing ideas about regulation are suddenly respectable. The American rich have lost amazing amounts of money; American inequality will be vastly diminished (sure, by tearing the rich down rather than by helping the poor, but the left has always favoured both strategies).

Yet according to latest Pew happiness research, Democrats remain much less happy than Republicans. They are more than twice as likely to say that they are ‘not too happy’. And Republicans are half as likely again as Democrats to describe themselves as ‘very happy’. The 25% Democrat ‘very happy’ is at its lowest level in a time series going back to 1972.

According to Pew, Republicans are happier than Democrats because:
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How bad is my quality of life?

According to this Bankwest quality of life ranking, the Melbourne local government area, which includes Carlton, has the lowest quality of life in Victoria, and one of the lowest rankings in the whole country.

But I don’ t want to live anywhere else. Am I mad, or is this research bad?

To be sure, city living is not perfect. It can be a bit noisy. In Carlton, the presence of public housing, charities, and hospitals serving the mentally ill means that observance of the social niceties is not as high as it might be in Ku-ring-gai, the top ranked local government area in the country. And of course deeply unsound political views prevail (though it is not as bad as the city of Yarra across the road).

But inner Melbourne has a huge amount going for it too. The mix of cafes, bars and restuarants is the best in the country. There is a an excellent selection of shops. I’m not a sports fan, but for those who are there is an unmatched concentration of sporting venues around the CBD. There are beautiful 19th century gardens (including one just down the street from me). There are plenty of cinemas and theatres. There are two good universities in or near the CBD.
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Why is the right happier than the left?

So far as I am aware, every survey that asks about political orientation and happiness finds that right-wingers are happier than left-wingers. In the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Liberal identifiers were a massive 13% ahead of Labor identifiers as describing themselves as ‘very happy’, 40%/27%. At his blog, Winton Bates summarises a new article on this subject, by Jaime Napier and John Jost in the June issue of Psychological Science, this way:

The study suggests that some of the association between political orientation and subjective well-being is accounted for by beliefs about inequality. The authors examined the effect of introducing ideological variables – relating to beliefs about inequality and meritocracy- in regression analyses explaining life satisfaction in the U.S. and nine other countries. They found that when the ideological variable was introduced into the analysis it took some of the explanatory power away from the political variable. …

The authors conclude that “inequality takes a greater psychological toll on liberals than on conservatives, apparently because liberals lack ideological rationalizations that would help them frame inequality in a positive (or at least neutral) light”

I don’t doubt that there is a statistical relationship between beliefs about inequality, meritocracy, and getting ahead that helps explain why leftists are not as happy as conservatives and others on the right. Even the new president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, makes this point in his book Gross National Happiness.

But how likely is that when people are asked how happy they feel, their mind turns to ideological rationalisations of inequality? Read the rest of this entry »

Does religion make you happy?

I recently read Arthur Brooks’ new book, Gross National Happiness. It’s a liberal-conservative version of Richard Layard’s social democratic Happiness: Lessons from a New Science a few years back. Two economists reading the happiness literature and finding it (mostly) supports what they already thought about the world.

One of Brooks’ arguments is that religion is good for happiness (he calls this chapter ‘Happiness is a gift from above’). Certainly the reported statistics are striking, with 43% of those who attend church regularly describing themselves as ‘very happy’, compared to 23% of those who attend church never or rarely.

I had a look at a similar question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005, and there is a smaller but still large gap between the proportion of people who go to church one a week or more who are ‘very happy’ (defined as 9-10 on a 0 to 10 happiness scale) and those who never go, 33% to 23%.

Will Wilkinson is, however, critical
of Brooks’ attempts to generalise this beyond the US experience. He points out that very secular European countries have very high happiness scores, and unlike the US they have been getting happier as they secularised.
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