Why I'm Unhappy With Happiness Surveys

I'm solidly behind any effort to show that we're more than just our marginal contribution to our bank account, the bottom line of our employer or the gross national product of our country. But it's important to look at the whole picture.
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LONDON -- "UK population's happiness is on the up," trumpeted a headline in The Guardian. What the headline was referring to are the results of a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics meant to measure Britain's national well-being. The program was announced in 2010 by David Cameron, with the first report coming in 2012 and the second this past week. While the idea of measuring a country's well-being by something other than just its GDP is certainly important and can lead to a really worthwhile conversation, the question is how the alternative index is compiled and how it correlates with other data on health and well-being. With our Third Metric campaign to redefine success as something beyond just money and power to include well-being, wisdom and our capacity to wonder and give back, I'm solidly behind any effort to show that we're more than just our marginal contribution to our bank account, the bottom line of our employer or the gross national product of our country. But it's important to look at the whole picture.

In this case, the Office for National Statistics based its conclusions entirely on a survey in which they asked around 165,000 people 16 and older a few questions about how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being "not at all" and 10 being "completely"). With this methodology, the Office for National Statistics found that happiness in the UK has gone up to 7.45 from 7.41 in 2012. A .04 increase? Is this really a meaningful difference -- one solid enough to conclude that happiness in Britain is on the rise?

Cameron's enthusiasm for the idea goes back a long way. Here he is in 2006 speaking at a Google Zeitgeist Europe conference:

It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB -- general well-being. Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.

And four years later, when he was announcing the initiative, he declared his intentions to act on the results. "To those who say that all this sounds like a distraction from the serious business of government," he said, "I say finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is the serious business of government."

So given the policy implications, it's vital that the methodology be as sound as possible. "It is essential that the set of measures of well-being is relevant and well-based in what matters to people, both as individuals and for the UK as a whole," said National Statistician Jil Matheson when the survey was launched in 2011. The key point here is: What were the survey's response rates? When we emailed the Office for National Statistics to ask that question, the response we got was that the survey was conducted in four waves, and the response rates varied from 60 to 45 percent. That means that 40 to 55 percent refused to participate.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to conjecture that if you are very unhappy, answering survey questions about how satisfied you are with your life might not be high on your to-do list. So, as I've been pointing out for years about political polling, the composition of who participates in a poll and who doesn't can seriously skew the results.

It's not just response rates. Even the order of questions can affect the results. For instance, Gallup, which has been conducting well-being surveys for years, discovered that asking questions about politics before the well-being questions can significantly alter the answers. This is just one more illustration of the danger of drawing serious conclusions from answers so susceptible to momentary context.

Even dodgier, as they like to say here, was the suggestion in the UK report for why this minuscule uptick in happiness occurred in the first place: because of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic Games being held in London. If this is truly the case and these events really did affect the index, then that just shows all the more how superficial a measure of happiness the Office for National Statistics survey is. Who knows, maybe it was "Gangnam Style" or Grumpy Cat that did it. No offense to the Queen or the Olympics, but goofy Internet memes seem just as plausible as significant contributors to feelings of true well-being.

Angus Deaton, a Princeton economics professor, wrote a paper on the instability of such measures. "In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St. Valentine's Day than to a doubling of unemployment," he wrote, "are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread."

Though it may be difficult to measure, the idea that happiness should be part of a democracy's national dialogue and purpose is not new. In the U.S., the "pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence as one of the inalienable rights we are endowed with by our Creator. And, of course, we know that what the Founders meant was not just the right to seek momentary pleasures of distraction but the right to live a life of meaning as part of a community, and to feel good by doing good.

In 1968, the idea of a broader measure of a country's worth was memorably articulated by Robert F. Kennedy:

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that -- counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. ... Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

And in 2008 in France, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy launched an initiative headed by Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, whose report declared that the "time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people's well-being."

The EU runs a "European Quality of Life Survey," which found that the UK ranked 10th out of 27 EU countries. The Paris-headquartered Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a "Better Life Index," which declared Australia the world's happiest country. The UN even commissioned a "World Happiness Report," which found that the Scandinavian countries were the happiest and that the least happy countries were in Africa.

Last year, President Obama welcomed a National Academies panel that includes another Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, to come up with a way to measure "subjective well-being." This is in keeping with the past work of his former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, who once published a paper trying to measure "the flow of emotional experience during daily activities."

In fact, the idea of measuring our well-being is so widespread that last year The Economist declared that "the happiness industry" was "one of the more surprising industries to have taken off during the current period of economic downtown."

But the problem is that almost all these efforts rely heavily, or in some cases completely, on survey questions. This can lead to conclusions like the one that the Office for National Statistics drew from its survey: that because the data from 2007 to 2011 were largely unchanged, the UK showed a "picture of stability." It was hard to miss the evidence, however, that those years in Britain weren't exactly a model of stability.

In fact, it's pretty easy to find real data for the UK that completely contradict the results of the happiness index. For instance:

  • In 2011, there were over 45 million prescriptions written for antidepressants in the UK, up 9-percent from the previous year. The NHS spent over £270 million on antidepressants in 2011, a 23-percent increase from 2010.

  • Indeed, antidepressant use has gone up almost 500-percent since 1991.
  • In 2011, over 15 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were given out.
  • The NHS spent over £49 million on sleeping pills from 2010 to 2011, an increase of over 17 percent from three years earlier.
  • Eight million people in the UK suffer from anxiety disorders, at a cost of nearly £9.8 billion.
  • Hospital admissions for stress were up 7-percent in 2012.
  • Nearly one fifth of all adults in the UK suffer from depression or anxiety.
  • Actions speak louder than words, and when you have 45 million instances of people making the effort to get a prescription for an antidepressant, it's hard to conclude that happiness is breaking out all over.

    And if the Office for National Statistics wants to rely on responses to survey questions, here are a few they can include in the mix:

    • Nearly 60 percent of people in the UK say their lives have become more stressful in the last five years.

  • In 2006, before the financial crisis, 36 percent of adults said they were struggling to keep up with bills and credit commitments. When asked the same question in 2013, 52 percent said they were struggling.
  • In London, 45 percent say they're worried they won't be able to make their housing payments, and 53 percent feel a fair or great amount of stress about the cost of their housing.
  • The idea behind the Office for National Statistics effort is great, but why not broaden the index to include as much data as possible, especially when so much real -- and hard -- data are readily available? A true happiness index should include not only data like the use of antidepressants and sleeping pills but alcoholism rates, suicide rates, the incidence of illnesses linked to stress like diabetes and high blood pressure, health care spending for stress-related illnesses, the percentage of employers offering wellness programs and flexible work schedules and the number of work days lost to stress.

    It's great that so many leaders are recognizing that the well-being of their citizens is not only important but also depends on more than just the quarterly growth rate (as important as that is).

    But our well-being is too important to use superficial measures that, whether intentionally or not, end up letting governments off the hook by ignoring data that show serious challenges to our well-being. If it's a problem that can be solved by watching the Diamond Jubilee or Usain Bolt win three gold medals, it's not a serious problem. To reach a real place of true well-being, we need an accurate picture of where we stand now.

    Correction: This post originally misstated that a panel to measure "subjective well-being" was commissioned by President Obama and includes his Council of Economic Advisers chairman, Alan Krueger. The panel was in fact organized by the National Academies, welcomed by the president in a press release, and does not include Mr. Krueger. Moreover, Mr. Krueger is no longer the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

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