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Sunday, January 01, 2006


Gabriel Mihalache

The discussion of happiness as a matter of public policy puzzles me (even more so when Will Wilkinson, a respected libertarian, undertakes it). Happiness, for me, is a deeply personal and subjective phenomenon, not subjected to the coarse and blunt tools of econometric welfare modeling, for example.

Most people, myself included, are not pleasure machines. The context and way in which a certain level of stimulation is achieved is very important and difficult to substitute with quantity.

Take me, for example. I am a die-hard anarchist. The only way in which government could credibly make me happy is by dissolving, but that would terribly upset someone else. I guess that the same basic pattern of conflicting "satisfactions" is generalised, especially amongst intellectuals.

An individual's level of utility (if you think that such notion is credible when applied in the "real world") much like an individual's income cannot be dissociated from the way it came about. Utilitarians might toy with the idea of working directly for happiness but I think that things are much more complicated, psychologically, and to get the State involved... well, that just spells trouble!

Mike Martin

Happiness and satisfaction with one's life are not necessarily the same things. The World Values Survey, coordinated by Ronald Inglehart at University of Michigan, http://wvs.isr.umich.edu/, provides a measure of both across many countries. The 1999-2001 survey results are discussed in "The pursuit of happiness", New Scientist, 04 October 2003.

The country with the highest proportion of people describing themselves as "very happy" is Nigeria (at nearly 70%, followed by Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador). The US figure is 40%, slightly above the UK at 36%.

On the other hand, self-assessment of mean life satisfaction on a 10 point scale yields a rather different picture. The highest is Puerto Rico (a little over 8, followed by Colombia, Denmark and Ireland).

Very happy Germans are scarce (20% of respondees), although mean life satisfaction scores well above 7, as is the case for life satisfaction in the US and the UK.

Data is currently being collected for the 2003-05 wave of the survey and data from the 1999-2001 wave and the three prior to that is available for analysis at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.com/

Rather than armchair arguments about whether happiness (or wellbeing) is or is not a suitable matter for investigation by economists and political scientists, it is becoming possible to frame testable hypotheses and to see whether answers to questions yield consistent, meaningful results.

The New Scientist article makes this interesting point:

"Governments would do well to worry about the happiness of their electorate. Political instability appears to go hand in hand with low life satisfaction, although it is difficult to say for sure which causes which. The lowest subjective well-being ever recorded - 1.6 out of 10 - was among inhabitants of the Dominican Republic in 1962 during the period between the dictator Rafael Trujillo's assassination and the overthrow of the constitutional government.

"Carol Graham at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC warns that countries trying to deepen democratic reforms need to concentrate on keeping their "middle-earners" happy and secure. In a study in Peru, Graham found that this group, whose support no government in a developing country can do without, are far less satisfied than the poor, for they take as their reference point the very wealthy, whose income and status they will be hard-pushed to match. The poor, meanwhile, take as their reference point the middle-earners, who are more within their reach. Once again, what counts is not what you have so much as what others have."

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