Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I can't get no...

Many thanks to my buddy Sam, who passed on the article below, which his buddy Carl Bialik wrote for the Wall Street Journal. I’m posting it here, as it clarifies some of the methodology used to determine the scores in the “Happiness Index” (subject of my previous post). I’m throwing it on here for two main reasons:

1) It is always good to be transparent and thorough. When I posted the previous piece, I knew that the creators of this index must have made some heavy assumptions, and this article outlines them.

2) It made me realize I wasn’t really explicit enough on my last post about why this index is interesting enough to highlight – it’s not because I think we’d be happier if our economy “small scale agriculture and tourism.” The main point is only that it highlights the fact that we currently measure success in the most absurd way – GDP growth. I think the objective of this index was not to find out who are the happiest people on earth, but to demonstrate that the formula for determining GDP/GNP is grossly simplistic and pursuing its growth results in perverse and dangerous side-effects. I also don’t think this index is the answer (neither is the GPI or the ISEW), but they are all important strategic step in starting to re-conceptualize our measures of success – to suspend our beliefs about our current model and honestly evaluate it.

Another important point that the piece below touches on, is that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to know how “happy” people are (we’re not talking about moods here, but the Aristotelian concept of living well). Again, I think we’re in need of an important re-conceptualization, and it’s helpful to look at this through the lens of Max-Neef’s basic human needs, and differentiating between needs and satisfiers of those needs. Still, to what extent ones needs are met is an inherently subjective question, and measuring one’s ability to meet ones needs is also very tricky. This is, in part, why it is often difficult to identify and eliminate violations of the 4th sustainability principle (including things like paying developing country laborers low wages, instead of no wages) – but at least it gives us a place to start evaluating these questions in reality and not following theoretical models to our own demise. Difficulty is no excuse not to try. Stay going…

Putting a Number on Happiness
July 20, 2006

The 200,000 people of Vanuatu -- a South Pacific nation composed of 83 islands, with an agricultural economy and corporate headquarters of file-sharing service Kazaa -- are the happiest on earth, according to a wave of recent articles.

"For the sake of Gross Global Happiness, I have resigned," Stuart Jeffries wrote1 in the Guardian, noting that his home in the United Kingdom ranked 108th in world happiness. "I am going to the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, which is the happiest country in the world according to a new survey." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up2 on the Guardian report, adding that the U.S. ranked 150th of 178 nations. The BBC attributed3 the islands' happiness to good weather, beautiful coastlines and a lack of income tax. In Scotland's Sunday Herald, Tom Shields added4, "Their culture is based on centuries of polygamy, dancing and drinking kava." A national news site, Vanuatu Online, quickly incorporated the illustrious title into its home page5, welcoming visitors to "the world's happiest place!"

The problem is, no one has asked Vanuatuans how happy they are. The ranking was based on extrapolating happiness levels from other countries.

Vanuatu received its designation last week from the New Economics Foundation, a U.K. think tank, in a report6 laying out its numerical "Happy Planet Index." The index used a formula to quantify the happiness of citizens, using the assumption that a "happy" person is someone who lives a long time, identifies themselves as generally satisfied, and uses an appropriate amount of natural resources. That last bit was included because the think tank was trying to measure the countries that best balanced their citizens' happiness and ecological concerns -- a subtlety lost in some of the press coverage.

The group relied on outside sources for the individual statistics, before applying its own calculations. For instance, the satisfaction scores came from a range of surveys conducted around the globe, most notably the World Values Survey7, an international research network which has surveyed people in over 80 countries. The environmental impact numbers originate primarily with an Oakland, Calif., non-profit organization called Global Footprint Network8.

In the case of the World Values Survey, there were no data available for Vanuatu. That survey reached fewer than half of all nations, and Vanuatu wasn't among them. Even if the archipelago had been included, it would have been tough to get a representative sample: There is fewer than one phone line for every 10 people, according to the CIA World Factbook9.

To fill in that gap, New Economics extrapolated Vanuatu's happiness score from happiness surveys in Africa and Asia, and made some adjustments based on the unique demographics of Vanuatuans.

So following that questionable adjustment, New Economics arrived at this winning formula for Vanuatu: Its people live an average of 68.6 years, are satisfied at a level of 7.4 -- on a scale of 1 to 10 -- and have an environmental footprint of just 1.1. By contrast, the numbers for the sad, natural-resource-hogging U.S. are 77.4, 7.4 and 9.5.

The rankings would have differed greatly had the group sought merely to determine which nations are happiest, rather than coming up with a happiness "efficiency" score that took into account resource consumption. Nic Marks, who devised the report for New Economics, emailed me a spreadsheet that left the resource factor out, and looked only at life expectancy and satisfaction. Suddenly, life looked a lot better in the U.S.: Americans ranked 19th in those terms, two spots ahead of the U.K. and 30 spots ahead of Vanuatu. Switzerland was first, with Denmark second.

We will soon know much more about world happiness: "The best survey is yet to come," said Ed Diener, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, referring to an ambitious effort by the Gallup Organization to conduct surveys this year in as many as 140 countries, with nationwide, random samples and consistent methodology. Gale Muller, who heads research for the poll, told me 95% to 97% of the globe's population will be represented, and that numbers should be available by year's end. Gallup will be asking respondents about their feelings about the future, about their satisfaction with the basics of life such as food and education, and about their confidence in national institutions such as the government and the media.

Among the smaller spots Gallup has included or plans to include: Balkan nations such as Montenegro, and the Palestinian territories. However, Gallup isn't planning to survey Vanuatu, because of expense. (Dr. Muller hadn't heard of the nation's distinctiveness in the field of happiness before I mentioned it.)

"To try to say, who are the happiest people on the planet, boy, you have to be careful -- under what circumstances, what does happiness mean, and all of those things," Dr. Muller said. "But what you can do is say, how does self-reported happiness change over time?"