Monday, September 18, 2006

How to measure Happiness

Under the heading We're richer than ever, but not happier the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend ran one of a series of articles all trying to make the point that growing per capita GDP is all very well but it doesn't seem to make us happier.

While the overall series of articles didn't make it absolutely clear how the measures for happiness were derived it seems there are two methodologies at work.

Method one simply asks individuals the question if they believe "life is getting better". The fact that 25% say it is getting better and 40% that it isn't is then the conclusive proof.

Another method is discussed in another article on the same day - this being asking people to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 and then comparing results between countries and between time periods.

Both these methods are, however, basically relative scales. They are both in their own way seeking the measure of hapiness from zero to the greatest imaginable happiness.

If, as seems likely a priori, the greatest imagineable happiness is in fact a function of our current happiness or indeed material well-being, it seems highly unlikely that one would ever see significant shifts in happiness.

This might be thought of as causing some kind of problem for a classical utilitarian operating on the basis that a moral society (and indeed an economically efficient one) operates by having each individual operate to maximise his own happiness - but that confuses the direct comparison of the degree of happiness from State A versus State B with the concept of "overall happiness".

And ultimately the article itself revealed the weakness of the survey method. 77% of respondants thought that Government policy should focus on maximizing happiness not wealth. Yet 60% of respondants responded that relationship with their family were the most significant contributor to happiness. Conjoining these would result in a conclusion that Australian people want Government to take responsibility for their family relationships.

It seems to me that this article reflects more on the dangers of letting journalists near surveys than it does on happiness.

Note - this doesn't mean that I actually believe that single focus on the pursuit of wealth is right. It just does mean that I don't think you can conclude that people aren't getting happier.

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