Is the quality of life in Australia getting worse?

According to today’s SMH happiness coverage, four out of ten Australians think that the overall quality of life in Australia is getting worse, while a quarter think it is getting better. The text of the question looks to be from a Newspoll series:

Thinking now about the overall quality of life in Australia, taking into account social, economic and environmental conditions and trends, would you say that life in Australia is getting better, worse or staying the same?

But if as a pollster you were asked to design a question to get junk answers you couldn’t do much better than this one. It is very vague – compared to when? (one of the earlier surveys found that people were inclined to regard the years of their early adulthood as the best general period, which suggests that personal experiences rather coloured perceptions of the overall social climate). It also requires respondents to do two things that they are not very good at – comparing over time, as I discussed earlier in the week; and assessing how other people are going, where they suffer from information bias – the media is more likely to report negative than positive stories, for example. As a result, when you ask people to judge trends in time for verifiable social or economic circumstances or events they almost always gets it wrong.

Should governments try to make us happy?

To me, happiness research is looking rather like the social capital research of the 1990s – intellectually interesting, but yielding very little in the way of worthwhile policy recommendations. But the Australian population, long inclined to looking towards the state, does not agree. According to a new poll reported in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

77 per cent agreed with the proposition that a government’s prime objective should be promoting the greatest happiness of the people rather than the greatest wealth.

I’m briefly quoted in another story in the today’s happiness coverage disagreeing with the idea that happiness should be an objective of government. This isn’t because there is nothing at all happiness research can tell us about policies conducive to well-being, but because I think there are a range of reasons why, given Australia’s current situation, this objective is not likely to lead to long-term changes in average national happiness:

1) Few significant and lasting benefits for most people. On a 0-10 scale, about three-quarters of the Australian population will rate themselves as 7 or above in happiness or life satisfaction surveys. They are happy already, and while various positive events or changes in their lives could give them a boost, they are likely to adapt back to their genetically-influenced set range. Many of those below 7 will be suffering temporary setbacks, from which they will recover in any case. The main scope for improvement is among the people enduring persistently low levels of well-being.

2) Not easily accessible by policy. People without partners tend to have low well-being (pdf, p.11), particularly in the middle years of life. But what can government sensibly do about this? For a start, there is some reverse causation – not surprisingly, people who were unhappy to begin with find it harder to form relationships. So the government’s job will be to match Australia’s least attractive personalities with mates, and be more succesful at it than all the traditional methods plus the new online search tools. Even the left’s quixotic faith in the state’s capacity to do good isn’t likely to extend to thinking government can achieve anything here. Short of re-introducing arranged marriages, I can’t see that there is much scope for even massaging the statistics. And if divorce laws were tightened, it probably would not increase happiness – people would be unhappy in marriage rather than unhappy in divorce.

3) Redundant additional arguments. There are some causes of ill-being that can be affected by government policy, such as removing causes of unemployment or providing medical assistance to those suffering from illnesses that affect their well-being. But governments are already trying to alleviate these problems. Another argument for trying to remedy them is redundant; the only interesting issues surround how we should go about dealing with these issues.

4) Dubious arguments. Many of the various odds-and-ends policy ideas for improving happiness collected in documents like the Wellbeing Manifesto are not clearly supported by research. For example, it proposes a maximum 35 hour working week, when the research (pdf, p.5) does not show even those working much longer hours than that with low average well-being and, as reported in yesterday’s Australian, most people settle into hours that suit them over time. Nor do I know of any research showing that restricting advertising would have any discernible effects on well-being, or that stopping ‘turning universities into businesses selling degrees and make them the critic and conscience of society’ would help – indeed, it would probably reduce the number of people capable of carrying out the ‘secure, rewarding jobs’ the manifesto, in all its banality, thinks are a good thing. Being a ‘critic and conscience’ of society no doubt appeals to the kind of people who write well-being manifestos, but demand for such services is limited.

Governments should focus on what they can realistically achieve. Given the nature of the instruments they have available to them, this means that their activities will be biased toward the material – redistributing money, creating incentives etc. Changing how people feel is much tougher, and attempts to do so are likely to join the long lists of failed government policies.