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Society, Politics & Law

The pitfalls of trying to measure happiness

Updated Thursday, 6th September 2012

The first national survey on well-being suggests that the happiest people are healthy home-owning rural couples with jobs. Meg Barker cautions against taking the findings at face value.

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Measuring a smile Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license The London Olympics has brought a smile to the face of the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Just before the opening ceremony the results of the first national survey of subjective well-being, asking people to rate their own happiness, satisfaction and anxiety, were published by Office for National Statistics. Below is a short summary of the findings followed by an outline of the problems I see with interpreting them.

The findings: who scores the most happiness points
The average rating of life satisfaction overall was 7.4 out of 10, but one in five people rated their anxiety yesterday as greater than 5 out of 10. Women reported being more satisfied than men, and 16-19 and 65-79 year olds seemed to be the happiest age groups. Black British, African and Caribbean groups scored quite a bit lower than any other ethnic groups.   People in rural areas seemed to be happier than those living in in industrial and built-up places, and owning property also seemed to be related to higher satisfaction. Married and cohabiting people reported more satisfaction than single people (including widowed and divorced people). Good health seemed to be related to satisfaction, without guaranteeing it, and unemployed people were less satisfied than those in employment.  

Problem 1 Causation: the 'eating ice-cream leads to drowning' fallacy 
The first vital issue with the findings is the old chestnut familiar to anybody who has studied psychology or statistics: correlation does not imply causation.  It would be easy to look at the results and say 'people in couples are better off than singles, we should encourage everyone into relationships and make sure that they stay together' or 'people in rural areas are happier so being around nature must make people feel better'.  

However, just because there is a relationship between two things does not mean that one causes the other. It could equally be that there is a causal relationship in the opposite direction. For example, it could be that happier people are more likely to get into romantic relationships (because they are overly optimistic about how easy they will be, perhaps!), or that people who are more satisfied with life tend to move to the country (maybe because they feel less need to prove themselves in high-powered city jobs).   Also it could very well be that some other factor is responsible both for people being happier and for the other aspect. For example, it could be that wealthier people are more likely to get married, to live in the country and to be happy: so in that case being wealthier is the causal factor, not anything to do with relationships or where people live.

A good way to remember this possibility is to consider the correlation between ice-cream sales and drowning deaths. As one goes up, so does the other, but obviously eating more ice-cream doesn't cause drowning. The reason they are related is that both go up in hot weather.  

Problem 2 Cultural normativity: round here they always say 'mustn't grumble …' 
Continuing on from this point about correlation, it seems to me that, for quite a few of the reported statistics, another factor which could be relevant is what is regarded as culturally ideal or normal. In the UK, it is generally seen as normal, or ideal, that a person should get a job, get married, and own a house. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that people who do these things report more satisfaction. They have more of a sense of 'belonging' to the culture and of having ticked the boxes which are expected of them – by themselves and by others.  

However, those things may not be intrinsically related to satisfaction. Perhaps in a culture where it is considered more normal to rent property (as in many other European countries) home-ownership would not be so related to happiness. In such a society all the problematic aspects of having your own house (mortgages, keeping it in good repair, being responsible, etc.) may count for more than the plus side of fitting in, meeting expectations and the perceived security of owning property in a culture which generally believes that it is the safest thing to do.  

The survey's gender findings are also interesting from the perspective of normativity. In the current economic climate it may be harder to meet up to norms and ideals of masculine roles (which have traditionally been based on being a provider and having an identity linked to what you 'do for a living'), than the norms and ideals of feminine roles (which have traditionally been about looking after others, and being approved of by others).  

A further point about normativity is whether the overall findings (the 7.4 out of 10 statistic) reflect people responding in a culturally normative way ('mustn't grumble'). It is important to remember that people are doing something whenever they speak or write (for example, when they complete a survey) rather than simply expressing their inner state. For example, psychologists find with opinion polls around election time that people often don't respond truthfully about who they plan to vote for; rather, they respond strategically, hoping to give the message that parties should improve otherwise they won't get their vote.   It is very possible that cultural differences in happiness ratings or satisfaction indices could say more about how people in that culture think they are supposed to feel, than how they actually feel.  

Problem 3 Happiness: will it make us happy? 
A final point about the whole endeavour of eliciting happiness or satisfaction ratings is the big assumption implicit in it all that it is good to be happy, and that people who express less satisfaction should be made more happy.   Unfortunately this message may have the opposite impact to its intention as many philosophies suggest that striving after happiness, believing that one is entitled to be happy, or expecting some kind of constant happiness in life, actually make us suffer more. Recognising the inevitable struggles that life involves, expecting our moods to fluctuate, and learning to accept difficult feelings rather than trying to avoid them, may well be better approaches.  

It is also important to challenge norms about the kind of life one needs to lead in order to be happy, because these reinforce the marginalisation of those who don't fit these norms. We need to recognise the diverse things that can bring satisfaction to life if we let them. Perhaps then people might be able to be equally satisfied on a busy street as in the country, with friends or alone as with partners, or in diverse forms of accommodation or daily life. 

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.




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