Happiness Matters: Measuring Happiness To Inform Government Policy

By Summer Bales
Staff Writer

Happiness is typically thought of as an abstract; a mere state of mind. Rarely do we consider the real systems that influence such abstract facets of our lives. We as a society have a tendency to cast aside concerns about our own happiness because we are taught to pursue more concrete goals such as financial stability, job security and career advancement.

Such cultural ambivalence toward happiness permeates our society, including the institutions tasked with creating government policy. Policies that seek to improve the standard of living generally focus on singular goals like raising Gross Domestic Product. This presents a problem for the effectiveness of government policy: it is difficult to improve people’s lives on a limited budget and a lack of comprehensive feedback on how policies perform. Improving government policy requires understanding the factors contributing to people’s happiness and how they interact with policies.

Happiness is gaining attention as a metric for policy analysis. The World Happiness Report has been at the forefront of evaluating and explaining differences in happiness worldwide in an effort to inform government policy. The report credits “a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness as a criterion for government policy” for fueling additional research into what makes people happy. Economic research increasingly focuses on measures of happiness and how these measures can provide a more comprehensive understanding of wellbeing than traditional methodology.

Measuring Happiness

Modern studies seek to discover the key factors determining happiness, and how those factors can be useful in policymaking. However, methods of defining and quantifying happiness differ among researchers, and have yet to become as objective as those used for income or GDP. One prominent method is Cantril’s Ladder, pioneered by American psychologist Hadley Cantril. In this approach, participants are asked to rate their quality of life on a zero to 10 “ladder,” where zero is the worst possible life and 10 is the best possible life. This method is notable for being “self anchored,”  meaning interpretations of zero and 10 are set by the participant rather than the researcher. This indirectly measures the participant’s gap between his/her expectations and reality. Research from the World Bank indicates that Cantril’s Ladder tends to prompt responses that are more closely correlated to income than are responses to open-ended questions. The difference between Cantril’s Ladder and open-ended questions is greater across countries than within them, suggesting that cultural factors — differing between countries — have a strong influence on how participants assess their own happiness. Governments must account for these cultural factors in happiness in order to craft effective development policies.

Using the Happiness Index

Governments usually promote public well being by addressing issues of income and wealth. While income is a necessity, it does not completely explain happiness. A study performed jointly by the University of British Columbia and Michigan State University shows that poverty and extreme income inequality can have a great effect on an individual’s dissatisfaction with the life they lead, but the removal of these factors has very little effect eliciting positive emotions. Reducing income inequality is an important step to improving overall well being, though it misses several variables whose profound effects are necessary to understanding what determines happiness.

The World Happiness Report used its finding to construct a concrete model of happiness. The report identified six key factors contributing to happiness levels:

  • GDP per capita;
  • Healthy life expectancy;
  • Social support, as measured by having someone on whom to rely during times of trouble;
  • Trust, as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business;
  • Perceived freedom to make life decisions; and
  • Generosity, as measured by recent donations.

We cannot rely on income alone without blinding ourselves to the majority of these factors when setting government policy.

Wiser, Happier Policymaking

The government of Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation situated between the vast populations of China and India, has begun using a “Gross National Happiness index” to measure improvements in the wellbeing of its just under 750,000 inhabitants and provide an objective source of feedback from government policy.

Measuring happiness is not just a stoic practice in tiny, religiously devout Bhutan. These types of indices gained recognition on the international level when the United Nations General Assembly solicited input from member states on constructing new indicators for happiness and “holistic development.”

The new focus on happiness may already be informing us about international policy priorities for development. The World Happiness Report has used Cantril’s ladder to calculate the mean and variance of happiness for each region of the world. The regions with the most internal inequality among their inhabitants are Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The most important factors contributing to the poor performance of these regions are differences in social support, incomes and healthy life expectancy.

In 2014, global leaders crafted a set of Sustainable Development Goals as policy targets for ending poverty, ending hunger, improving education and fighting climate change. The researchers from the World Happiness Report have pushed to be able to guide the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals by providing indicators of “subjective well being” to shape policy.

Utilizing new happiness indices can both inform policymaking and allow for considerations of cultural difference in the context of international policy, where cultural differences can be deep and far-reaching. As our world grows increasingly interconnected, we would be wise to endorse this groundbreaking research into the effects of government policy if we truly mean to improve the wellbeing of all the world’s people.

Image by Dietmar Temps

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