Happiness and Policy

On Monday evening I heard Ed Diener (aka Smiley Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois) present at the 4th European Conference on Positive Psychology in Croatia on the subject of Well-being on Planet Earth. Leaving aside the fact that Diener works for the Gallup Organisation, he presented some curious findings about the predictors of life satisfaction and positive and negative emotion, and the relevance for policy use.

Life Satisfaction vs Emotion

Diener’s ‘happiness formula’ is one of the most well-known in Positive Psychology:

Subjective Well-being (i.e. happiness) = Satisfaction with life + Positive Emotion – Negative Emotion.

This means that happiness is not a simple measure of how good you feel (emotion) but also includes a cognitive element of what you think about your life (satisfaction with life). Still with me? Great!

This explains why countries like Denmark can feature at the top of some happiness scales, but not others.

For example, when asked “on a scale of 0-10 how satisfied are you with your life?” Denmark comes top of the league table. But when you look at which countries are high in positive emotion, New Zealand, Honduras and Panama come at the top.

But happiness is even more complex than that – the presence of positive emotion is not the same thing as the absence of negative emotion (in the same way that health is not the mere absence of illness).

So countries which are high in positive emotion are not the same as those which are low in negative emotion (e.g. Denmark, Sweden and Australia).

Diener’s research with Gallup has also found that the top two predictors of satisfaction with life and positive emotion are not the same:

Predictors of satisfaction with life:

1. Money (as measured by GDP per capita)
2. Optimism
3. Whether I can count on other people

Predictors of positive emotion:

1. Whether I learned something yesterday
2. Freedom to choose
3. Whether I can count on other people

Relevance for Policy Use

According to the Gallup data, 94% of Danes score more then 8/10 for happiness, whereas 97% of Togolese score less than 3/10. Not surprisingly (because this is where Gallup’s interests lie), Diener used these extraordinary findings to argue that we should pay more attention to country-level well-being, since the way in which individual countries are run must be what makes the difference to these overall happiness scores. His suggestion is that societies would do well to use well-being measures in their creation of country-wide policies, as well as the more traditional economic and social measures.

It’s difficult not to disagree with him when you look at the data*; however, the question then arises as to whether it’s the government’s role to make people happy. My own perspective is the government does have a role to play in creating the right environment, although I think we could do a great deal more to improve people’s lives by spending the resources on treating mental illness effectively.

* Sadly the data Diener presented isn’t in the public arena since it belongs to the Gallup Organisation.

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