Well Being Science in the Media

I use a simple star system (one star = pretty bad, five stars = very good) to provide utterly subjective ratings of the value of different media reports on wellbeing science.
Once I have the proper technology, I will allow readers to provide their own ratings.
Please email me links to other media reports on wellbeing science that are of interest (uli.schimmack at utoronto.ca)

MARCH

March 9, 2008 (Robert Franks, NYT) " Income and Happiness: An Imperfect Link"
* [It is instructive to compare this article to an article in the
Times that appeared only a couple of months later.
The main problem of this article is the conclusion that well-being is relative. If it were relative, the correlation between income and well-being ratings within countries
should be very strong , but it is not. In addition, there should be no correlation between nations' average wealth and well-being ratings (as predicted by Easterlin, 1974),
but studies have consistently found a strong correlation. The latest estimate is a correlation of r = .8 (
Deaton, 2008).
Evidently, income distribution is an important issue and maximization of average levels is a poor criterion for any policy, no matter whether the average is based on income or
well-being ratings.]

APRIL

Gallup Report on UTube
* [Comment: Latin America does not have the highest level of wellbeing. The highest wellbeing is found in the richest countries, (The World Database on Happiness, or the
Worldmap  of Happiness])

April 29, 2008 "National Well-Being Measure Finds Majority Struggling"
** [Introduces a groundbreaking new initiative to monitor US American's wellbeing, but provides a biased representation of the meaning of ratings on a life-satisfaction scale. The survey is based on a 10-item scale, low scores are rare 4%, medium scores are frequent, 47%, and high scores are also frequent (49%). So, live for mot US Americans is pretty good, although far from perfect. The average rating on this scale is amongst the highest averages in the world.]

MAY

May 14, 2008 TIMES online "If you're richer, you're happier"
*** [A reasonable article on The Easterlin Paradox. However, like many other articles the article fails to distinguish clearly between the individual and a nation.
Easterlin's theory would still suggest that rich individuals are happier than poor individuals because he assumes that people's happiness is based on relative comparisons.
The more controversial prediction of his theory is that raising average levels of wealth would not lead to increased average levels of wellbeing.]

May 16, 2008 (Psychology Today Blog, Christopher Peterson) "What Is Positive Psychology, and What Is It Not?"
*** [The first blog by Christopher Peterson, an eminent psychologist, and a prominent Positive Psychologist.
The main aim of this blog is to provide a description of Positive Psychology. It emphasizes the aim of Positive Psychology to be a science.
However, the inherent problem for Positive Psychology is the conflict between its aim to be scientific and the aim to provide "scientific" answers for the general public.
Due to the limited information and the empirical difficulties in studying wellbeing, current answers often have to go beyond the empirical facts.
The facts posted in this blog illustrate this problem.

1. "Most people are happy." [This is not a summary of a scientific finding. What is the population for this conclusion: US American college students, US Americans, or all people currently living on this planet?  What is the criterion to determine whether somebody is happy or unhappy: a rating above the midpoint on an ordinal scale? Moreover, others are currently using the same evidence to claim that most Americans are struggling to be happy (April 29, 2008 "National Well-Being Measure Finds Majority Struggling"), and a positive psychologists from Harvard University claims that 50% of college students are depressed ("Learn to make yourself happier"). I am not saying that the conclusion is false. I am just saying that "most people are happy" is not a good example of a scientific fact about happiness.

2. "Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along for the happy ride." [I am aware of the meta-analytic evidence that shows a correlation between wellbeing measures and other good things in life. However, I think it is not possible to claim as a scientific fact that these correlations reflect causal effects of happiness. Moreover, a recent study just claimed that the highest level of happiness does produce fewer of these good things. At this point, it is questionable whether any of these findings can assume the status of a scientific fact.

3. "Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people." A subsequent post by Dr. Peterson provides a more complex and accurate description of the empirical facts ("Money and Happiness").

4. As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia trumps hedonism. [This statement assumes that satisfying life, eudaimonia and hedonism are well defined constructs with well established measures, but they are not.  A description of the empirical facts would be that a measure of life-satisfaction tends to be more highly correlated with a measure that is assumed to reflect audaimonia than a measure that is supposed to measure hedonism.]

It is also instructive to see which actual empirical facts are not mentioned in this list of things that we know.
1. Life-satisfaction judgments decrease when people loose their jobs. (Lucas, Psychological Science, and many other studies by economists)
2. Average life satisfaction judgments of nations are strongly (r > .5) correlated with nations' wealth (Gross Domestic Product), freedom, observance of human rights, etc. and other good things Easterlin, 1974, Veenhoven, 1991, Diener et al. 1995, Diener & Oishi, 2000, etc., etc.).
3. Life satisfaction judgments are correlated with individuals' household income (Easterin, 1974, Veenhoven, 1991).
4. Life-satisfaction judgments decrease when people become physically disabled (Lucas, JPSP, and several articles in specialized journals on disability).

I believe the omission of the latter findings reveals a bias in positive psychology and psychology in general to focus on internal determinants of happiness and wellbeing. However, if you are less happy than you would like to be, you may ask yourself first whether your low happiness is caused by your lack of character strength or whether it may be your actual living conditions that are responsible. Sometimes it may be better to try to change your actual life than to just try to adjust your emotions and beliefs to unfavorable life circumstances. In other words, if you are a rich White US American with an autonomous job who feels dissatisfied, Positive Psychology may offer you some answers. However, if you are a poor, unemployed African American single mother in a crime ridden neighborhood, a lack of gratitude and meaning in life may be the least of your concerns.
Again, I am not saying what you should or should not do to make yourself feel happier or increase your wellbeing. I am simply saying that a positive science should be limited to the description and explanation of empirical facts. The translation of this information into self-help tips, interventions, and policy recommendations has to be separated from the science.
My problem with positive psychology is that the lines are often blurred and that values and beliefs that are underpinning the normative aspects of positive psychology sometimes shape the interpretation of the scientific facts.]

May 19, 2008 "Should the Government Make Us Happy?"
***** [No wellbeing science facts, but a good overview over the current debate on the use of wellbeing science for public policy.]

May 22, 2008, International Harold Tribune "What if this is as good as it gets?"
* [This article contains many questionable claims about wellbeing.]
- conservatives are happier than liberals
[I don't know the empirical evidence that supports this claim, but it is unlikely to be a causal relationship. Being a liberal or republican reflects individuals' preferences and values. By definition, wellbeing depends on the realization of these preferences. Clearly, Republicans should be less happy, if they had to live by the rules of a liberal majority and vice versa. In cross-cultural studies, free and liberal societies have higher wellbeing than conservative and traditional societies].
"who is happy, not people in midlife"
[Survey results show a dip in wellbeing measures during the midlife years. However, the effect size is very small, and the effect is unlikely to be a direct causal effect. More interesting are the immediate causal factors that produce this relationship.]
- "generation after generation, Americans are becoming more unhappy"
[This statement is not supported by the empirical evidence. Most studies show stable average levels of wellbeing in the United States over the past 30 years.]
- ""Daniel Gilbert compares accumulating wealth to eating pancakes. "The first one is delicious, the second one is good, the third O.K.," he told Harvard magazine. "By the fifth pancake you're at a point when an infinite number more pancakes will not satisfy you to any degree."
[Accumulating wealth is different from being rich and spending money at will to increase wellbeing. Many studies show continuous increases in wellbeing with higher incomes in the typical range of incomes. Whether 1 billion makes you as happy as 10 billion has not been empirically investigated.]
"The hedonometricians even came up with the notion of a "hedonic set point," or baseline. Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff has asserted that this happiness baseline notion is wrong: Personality is much less stable than body weight, and happiness levels are even less stable than personality."
[This statement confuses two questions. First, is there a happiness set-point? Most of the research is based on longitudinal studies. The empirical question is whether individual differences remain stable over time. All studies have found evidence for a stable component in wellbeing measures. Stability is not perfect, but there is stability. In this sense, there is a setpoint. The second question is how stable wellbeing is. Some studies suggest that wellbeing is less stable than personality traits (Conley, 1984; Fujita & Diener, 2005).]
"For every person who shows a substantial lasting increase in happiness, two people show a decrease," Etcoff wrote on a Web site called edge.org."
[To my knowledge there is no scientific evidence to support this claim, and several findings in the literature are inconsistent with this claim.
1. An equal number of people get happier or unhappier after marriage (Lucas et al.). 2. The average level of well-being remains fairly stable over time. This finding suggests that there are equal movements up and down in happiness]

May 28, (CNN.com/health) “8 ways to be a happier mom
*** [The source of the scientific “facts” is not clear.  There are also some annoying inconsistencies. First, it is claimed that “Most of us know that money can't buy happiness,” followed by the good advice “For instance, do you really need to be the one to clean the house? How about paying someone to help out?” Well, if paying someone to clean can increase mom’s happiness, doesn’t that mean money buys happiness? And what about ways to make dad happier? A little fact: One study found that the effect of children on wellbeing depended on income. For wealthy people children increased wellbeing, but for poor people it did not (vanPraag, 1999). It is only one study, but it makes sense that money can buy happiness, especially if you have to share your income with more people.]

May 29, 2008 ABC News "Understanding Happiness"
*** [A good summary of Bob Cummins' theory of happiness]
[Of course, there are a few objections that I would like to raise. The most crucial one is the distinction of emotions as fleeting and moods as stable.}
[This is a common but not scientifically supported distinction between emotions and moods. Take social relationships as an example.
Seeing my good friends always makes me feel happy. I don't adapt to these events. Is this a mood or an emotion? I think it is an emotion.
If it is, Cummins clearly assumes that emotions contribute to well-being. I feel down on a cold and rainy day, but I feel good the next day on warm and sunny day.
If this is a mood, moods are clearly not very stable - they can change from day to day. Furthermore, they may add little to wellbeing because they are in the background
of conscious while I am focusing mostly on more important things than the weather and its impact on my feelings.
I agree that to some extent the average amount of our good versus bad feelings is relatively stable over time. However, the amount of stability and the causal factors that produce
this stability are largely unknown because few longitudinal studies of affective indicators of wellbeing exist. Hopefully, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index will provide scientific
data on this important question.

May 30, 2008 (Robert VerBruggen, National Review Online) "Government Doesn’t Make You Happy"
* [A review of one more popular book on happiness. The review shows how bad it can be when wellbeing science is used with an agenda.
Quote "using public policy to decrease inequality won’t make anyone happier."  This is a prediction, not a scientific fact. Moreover, any policy is likely to make somebody happier,
so it seems a rather dubious prediction. The scientific data have no clear policy implications. A related fact: more left-leaning countries like Sweden have broadly speaking similar levels of wellbeing as more right-leaning nations like the United States.]

May 31, 2008 "The Filipino Paradox"
* [Mostly relevant for people interested in the Philippines. The average self-reported wellbeing of the Philippines is often higher than GDP per capita data predict. However, one possible explanation COULD be problems in the measurement of GDP in the Philippines. Over 10% of GDP is based on remittances from workers overseas (
source). It is possible that this number is only a rough estimate because some money or other resources may find their way back home without being counted in GDP.

JUNE

June 2, 2008 (Financial Post, Foster) "We can take care of our own happiness"
*** [no scientific facts about wellbeing science, but a well-written criticism of naïve public policy recommendations that claim to be based on wellbeing science.
Three quick comments: First, I have argued that liberal democratic societies and subjective definitions of wellbeing have much in common. They agree that
wellbeing has to be defined primarily if not exclusively from the perspective of individual citizens. Second, all measures of wellbeing indicate that wellbeing is highest in
Western liberal democracies. However, liberal democracies vary in specific policies and it is possible that some are better than others. I don't think the scientific evidence
clearly shows which societies do better - that is, after controlling for differences in GDP. Finally, there is good evidence to suggest that choice is generally good, but this does
not mean that governments have no influence on citizens' wellbeing. Governments can produce useful information that enables individuals to make better choices.
Moreover, governments create laws that regulate conflicts between individuals with different interests. Thus, there is room for sensible policy recommendations without
creating a "nanny state".]

June 2, 2008: (Jean Chatzky) "Want to be rich? Don't get too happy"
* [reports on the finding that people with the highest rating on a wellbeing scale (10 out of 10) report less income than people with a high, but not perfect scores (8,9 out of 10).
The empirical finding is fairly robust and has been shown in several data sets, including the World Value Survey. However, it is less clear what this finding means. One possible explanation
is that a larger proportion of respondents in the highest category misreport their true happiness. Moreover, few people consistently score at the top of the scale. So, any negative effects of perfect wellbeing are short-lived. For most of us, higher wellbeing would go hand in hand with more income. Another possible explanation for the finding is that the studies assessed happiness or self-reported life-satisfaction. It is possible that some perfectly happy people have overly positive perceptions of their live and eventually reality catches up with them. The problem in this case, is not the perfect level of happiness, but the fact that it was based on false perceptions of reality.]

June 2, 2008 (The Real Truth by The Restored Church of God) "The key to happiness revealed"
* [provides a brief overview of wellbeing science. Many of the conclusions reached in the article are not firmly grounded in empirical facts.
1. The article cited Kahneman 2006 as evidence that increased standard of living does not increase wellbeing, although Kahneman has revised his opinion.
2. The article claims that marriage has positive effects, although this is still a controversy in the field, and any effect of marriage per se is likely to be small. Bad marriages are not good for wellbeing.
3. The article claims that "those who spend money on others were much happier than those who spent money on themselves" This claim is based on a single (groundbreaking) article and exaggerates the effect size. People who are generally more concerns about others' wellbeing (high agreeableness) do not always report higher levels of wellbeing than people who are more selfish (low agreeableness).
4. The claim that NUMBER of friends is more important than money is not supported by empirical evidence. Quality of social relationships is much more important than number of friends. But hey, try it and get 100 friends on facebook. See whether it makes you happier than $100,000.]
5. The article claims that social comparison processes undermine wellbeing. "We are satisfied with something we have (i.e., a car, house, spouse, etc.) until we see something someone else has that seems better" There is little evidence to support this claim. Many things influence our wellbeing independently of social comparisons, and the effects of social comparisons on wellbeing are complex.
6. "Materialism often distracts us from life’s important goals." I am not going to defend materialism, but who makes the judgment what life's important goals are?
7. And last but not least " God’s Word Reveals Path to Happiness!"  For some people wellbeing is grounded in their religious beliefs and pursuing a path in accordance with religious principles is their individual choice. Even if it were true that religious people are on average happier than others, beliefs about these issues cannot be grounded on pragmatic considerations about wellbeing.
In conclusion, "The Real Truth" is not scientific truth based on empirical facts.

June 2, 2008 Harvard University Buisness School "Spending on happiness"
* [a quick report about a Science article that found that people who spent money on others were happier than people who spent money on themselves.}
[The results are clearly interesting, but they are too preliminary to be considered a scientific fact for several reasons. First, the sample size of two studies was small.
Second, the study did not clearly examine how people spent their money. It may have been charitable donations or buying a friend a gift.
Study 3 was an experiment. Experiments are good to demonstrate causality, but they create new problems. For example, the experimental manipulation was salient and novel.
Maybe giving a friend a gift everyday becomes less novel and people adapt to these experiences as much as to other emotional events.
Another problem is that the authors offer no theory for their counterintuitive finding.  Given the prominence of this study, more research will examine this interesting finding.
Please email me if you know about additional studies or unpublished findings related to this study.]

June 4, 2008 (The Capital)  "Achieving Happiness: Want to feel happy? Here's what you need to do"
* [a broad overview of the positive psychology program.]
[The most annoying repeated statement in these reviews is the claim that 50% of your wellbeing is genetically determined, 10% is determined by life circumstances not under your control, and 40% is under your own control and you can do something about it to maximize your wellbeing. This statement erroneously uses statistical parameters from studies that examine the determinants of individual differences in wellbeing. Last time I checked life circumstances like marriage and employment were at least partially under my control. Also even if 50% of the VARIANCE in wellbeing were genetically determined, it is possible that these genetic effects are under my control. For example, genes influence attractiveness and attractiveness could influence wellbeing (the evidence is not very solid). In this case, plastic surgery could change my attractiveness and I could override a genetic influence on wellbeing. Without knowing the causal mechanisms of genetic effects it is not clear how much these effects are under my control or not.]

June 6, (Psychology Today Blogs, Christopher Peterson) "Money and Happiness"
***** [A good review of the empirical facts on money and happiness, with a cautious conclusion that it is wrong to claim that money does not buy happiness.
A posted comment raises the important point that empirical findings are contingent on the validity of the happiness measure and that different definitions of
happiness may lead to different conclusions. Most studies used life-satisfaction as a measure, and it has been shown that these measures are responsive to
individuals' environment. Other definitions and measures of happiness (e.g., a detached inner-sense of peace) could produce different results.]

June 7, (Deccan Harold, Living) "Pursuit of happiness"
*** [A long article that summarizes some of the older and more recent findings in wellbeing science.
On a positive note, it mentions more recent evidence that nations' GDP is a good predictor of nations' average life-satisfaction, even beyond levels of $10,000 per capita (ppp),
which other articles often claim to be a limit.
On a less positive note, the article struggles like many others to communicate properly the findings regarding genetic set-points. There is no fixed number that can express how much
an individuals' wellbeing is genetically fixed. Moreover, heritability estimates vary across studies and are based on a number of unproven assumptions. There is little doubts that genes influence
wellbeing but how they do this and how much they limit individuals' ability to maximize wellbeing is not known. The self-help tips are not based on scientific facts, nor does it seem sensible
to make blanket recommendations that will be useful for everybody.]

June 8, 2008 (Oakland Tribune, Sandra J. Cohen and Roger Cormier) "Learn to make yourself happier"
* [This article reports on a key note presentation by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar at a professional conference. The article contains several unsupported claims.
1. " Nearly half of college students are depressed. " Psychology 100 students are the most surveyed population, and consistently show high levels of wellbeing that
are quite similar to the high levels of wellbeing in the general population.
2. "Most of us find it difficult to achieve a healthy balance in crowded lives" and "Challenging goals and difficult emotions can help us grow" [In my experience challenging goals are also responsible for a difficulty to find a healthy balance. So, you may have to choose what is more important to you, or by Ben Shakar's book to find out how you can have it all.
3. :Studies have shown that once we have our basic needs met, acquiring financial wealth does not add to our happiness." Once more, there is no empirical evidence to support this claim and it ignores the problems of many stressed and occasional depressed students who are full-time students and have a job (and occasionally are a parent), which makes it more difficult to find a healty balance that for students with deep pockets. Empirical evidence shows that college students' in nations with high wellbeing (rich Western democracies) report higher wellbeing than students in other nations (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995). There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that money matters only for the fulfillment of basic needs.

June 23, 2008 (washingtonpost.com,  Shankar Vedantam,) "Financial Hardship and the Happiness Paradox"
* [no new facts. Happiness ratings in the United States show no clear trend over the past decades, whereas nations wealth (GDP) is strongly correlated with nations' average rating of life-satisfaction.
It cites an isolated finding that happiness in China has not increased from 1990 to 2000 by Hilke Brockmann at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, but fails to report that other recent studies do show a correlation between economic growth and wellbeing. Most annoying is that the article concludes with Easterlin's speculations about Danish happiness. "If you ask why the Danes are happier, an alternative hypothesis is they have a set of public policies that deal more immediately with people's fundamental concerns." Well, this is not a viable alternative explanation for the correlation between GDP and wellbeing. To have such a fabulous welfare state that helps families, the government needs money, and it gets this money from the taxes Danish citizens pay and because Danes earn a lot of money, this is a lot of money to give back to Danish citizens. Distribution is important and redistribution can increase average levels of happiness, but Danes average happiness is not a distribution wonder, but quite consistent with the GDP per capita of Denmark: GDP - per capita (PPP): $37,400, which makes it one of the wealthiest nations in the world. But if Dr. Easterlin is correct and only relative income matters, why doesn't he move from Southern California to Zimbabwe?]

June 24, 2008 (Scientific American) " Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?"
** [Reports on a new study published in Psychological Science that examines why conservatives are happier than liberals.  The main hypothesis is that liberals and conservatives have different preferences for equality. The topic raises interesting philosophical question because preferences for equality imply a preferences about other people's lives that are in conflict with the preferences of the person who is living these lives. The reason is that there are two scenarios for unrealized preferences for equality. One scenario is a billionaire with a preference for equality. This scenario does not create a problem because the billionaire can share his wealth to realize his or her preference. The other scenario is a poor person with a preference for equality. This scenario creates problems because the realization of the preference for equality is much more difficult for a poor person (vote for left-leaning parties, start a revolution, etc., work harder).  Positive wellbeing science can only examine how preferences for equality influence wellbeing. So, what is the scientific evidence? To my knowledge, existing studies have not directly examined the contribution of preferences for equality and wellbeing. Studies that come closest to examining this question have examined the correlation between people's preferences for power (wealth, social status, etc.) versus universalism (a world of peace, harmony, and equality). These studies typically show weak correlations with wellbeing, but most studies I know are limited to student samples. Personality researchers have shown that liberal versus conservative values are related to a broader personality dimension of openness to experience. Openness typically shows no clear relation with wellbeing measures. The new research shows that republicans tend to have higher happiness ratings than democrats, but a number of confounding variables could explain this relation. The latest study controls for some of these (e.g., income) and still finds a correlation. But the evidence remains correlational. It is even possible that happy people are more likely to be conservative; that is have a preference for the status quo. The reason is that unhappy people may hope that changes will make them happier.  Finally, we may wonder why this question is of interest. Let's assume it were true that republicans are happier because they value equality less and democrats are less happy because they value equality more. Would Republicans change their preferences? Would Democrats change their preferences? If not, it may be better to focus on other preferences that contribute to individual's wellbeing without diminishing others' wellbeing.]

JULY

July 2, 2008 (Chicago Tribune "Survey reveals world of happiness, discontent"

* [reports that Denmark is the happiest country in the world, whereas US ranks 16.  It is important to keep in mind that rankings can exaggerate differences. The differences between Denmark and other top nations are very small and may not be reliable. To my knowledge, nobody has tested whether Denmark is statistically significantly happier than the United States.]

 

July 3, 2008 (BBC) "Denmark 'world's happiest nation"

** [reports on a recent study of the World Value Survey. Denmark is the top nation, but it also claims that Puerto Rico and Colombia are number 2 and 3.  It is important to note, however, that the World Value Survey asks two questions: (a) a 10-point life-satisfaction question and a (b) four-point happiness question. This ranking simply averages both questions, but the two questions produce different rankings of nations. An important scientific question is which of these questions is a better measure of happiness or wellbeing. This also has implications for the conclusion about wealth and freedom as predictors of wellbeing. Wealth is more highly correlated with life satisfaction ratings than happiness ratings. Numerous explanations can be offered for this finding, and none of them have been scientifically tested. The study also shows that wellbeing ratings have increased over the past decades in many nations.] [see also July 4, Chicago Tribune]

 

July 4, 2008 (Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman) "Freedom: First step in the pursuit of happiness"
*** [reports on a recent study of the World Value Survey that (a) average wellbeing ratings of nations are highly correlated with freedom and wealth of nation - a well known fact - and (b) that wellbeing ratings have been increasing over the past two decades in many countries. The latter finding contradicts the long-held view that wellbeing of nations remains stable over time (Easterlin, 1974).  The new evidence would suggest that the higher wellbeing in modern wealthy democracies is actually caused by the higher level of wealth and freedom. It is hard to distinguish the independent contribution of wealth and freedom because they are highly correlated and probably influence each other. In any case, it seems likely that countries with low levels of wellbeing would become happier with increasing freedom and wealth. However, this conclusion is not generally accepted. Some researchers point to Japan as an example of a country that has increased in wealth and freedom but wellbeing did not increase. The problem for the critics is to explain why freedom and wealth are highly correlated across nations.]

 

July 4, 2008 (AlterNet, Bruce E. Levine) "The Science of Happiness: Is It All Bullshit?"
*** [This web post discusses an appearance of Tal Ben-Shahar - A professor at Harvard who teaches a course on positive psychology - on the Daily Show, a popular TV show in the United States [UTUBE clip]. The post contains no scientific facts but it shows how simplistic normative self-help tips undermine the value of wellbeing science as a positive science that aims to uncover the determinants of wellbeing. In the show, Stewart asks "How is that science?" Indeed, self-help tips cannot be science. Any normative guidelines that tell people what to do are by definition not science.  [see also a related post on Ben-Shahar's book on June 8]]

 

[summer break. I will fill in missing links when I have time.]

 

AUGUST

 

August 26, 2008 (Science Alert Australia New Zealand) “The pursuit of happiness - sustaining human well-being

*** A brief review of wellbeing research. The discussion on money and wellbeing is nuanced, but does not include the recent findings that nations’ wellbeing increased in many countries, if not Australia or the United States (Heagerty & Veenhoven, 2004; Inglehart, 2008).

 

August 26, 2008 “Well-Being of Americans Declines As Economy Worsens
***** This article reports some of the first findings from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a new initiative to track US Americans’ wellbeing on a daily basis. The index shows a decline in Americans’ wellbeing over the past six months, and a negative correlation between gas prices and wellbeing. This finding provides scientific support for the general impression of Americans’ mood in the media. The full report is available at http://www.well-beingindex.com.

 

August 29, 2008 (Sally Williams, Western Mail) “Does Powys really hold the recipe for happiness?
August 29, 2008 (Jackie Bow, South Wales Echo) “Happiness map is just a joke to us

* Report of a study of happiness in different regions of the UK. Unfortunately, there is no scientific content that reveals why some cities have happier inhabitants than others.
At least a comedian points out that the unhappy regions have higher unemployment. As unemployment is known to be a strong predictor of individuals’ wellbeing, it is not surprising that regions with high unemployment have lower wellbeing. This is also true for regions in Germany, where unemployment accounts for some of the differences between the East and West of Germany.

 

August 30, 2008 (Detroit News) “Economy depresses Michigan well being”

** This article is based on statistical and anecdotal evidence that the economic downturn in Michigan has notable effects on wellbeing.
The negative effects of unemployment are well known. More rigorous scientific studies of the effect of decreasing house prices and foreclosures on wellbeing would be helpful.

SEPTEMBER

 

September 1, 2008 (International Harold Tribune) “Economists look to expand GDP to count 'quality of life'
*** An overview of GDP and its potential shortcomings as a measure of nations’ wellbeing.

 

September 1, 2008 (IBN live, Melbourne) “Bigger the shopping trolley, happier the woman
*** A study of 2000 Australians suggests that women’s wellbeing is more negatively influenced by inflation than men’s wellbeing
because women are more aware of household budgets and costs.

 

September 1, 2008 (Times Online) “Top 10 tips to beat back-to-work blues
* Not much science here.

 

September 8, 2008 (Marnell Jameson, LA Times) “The science of happiness

* [Not much scientific content here.  The article begins with a multiple-choice test. Presumably, readers are being challenged to test their (false) intuitions against the hard facts of happiness science. “True or false:
___ I would be happier if I made more money, found the perfect mate, lost 10 pounds or moved to a new house.

___ Happiness is genetic. You can't change how happy you are any more than you can change how tall you are.

___ Success brings happiness.

Answers: False, false and false.

Only the answer to the second question is really supported, but then one may wonder how many have the intuition that happiness is as fixed as height?

Regarding the first question, a lot of evidence suggests that a higher income does increase happiness. For example, Diener et al. (1985) found that people on the Forbes 500 list were considerably happier than average US Americans and lottery winners are happier, too (Diener & Bieswas Diener, 2008).

Regarding the second question, research also shows that people with prestigious jobs are happier than those working construction or roofing. If this counts as success, it would indicate that success brings happiness.

It is not clear how the author got the answer key because she talks about the new book by Diener and Bieswas Diener (2008) which points out these findings from the science of happiness. Thus, the correct answer key (given current scientific knowledge) is: True, False, True

 

Not surprisingly, the article also gets other facts wrong. The fact that happiness is 50% heritable does not imply that 50% is under your control. Many environmental factors are also not under our control. For example, unemployment lowers happiness, but people have no control over the economy or gas prices (see August 26, 2008).

 

The article quotes Sonja Lyubomirsky as an expert to claim that “life circumstances don't result in sustained happiness, she said, because we adapt.” There is very little evidence to support this claim and recent evidence shows that people do not quickly adapt to a number of life-cirucmstances (Diener and Bieswas Diener, 2008).

 

Diener is quoted to support these claims “What happiness isn't, Diener adds, is getting everything right in your life…That's because happiness lies in the way you live and look at the world.” Well, if everything were going right in my life, it would make it a lot easier for me to look at the world in a positive way.” Should we really increase happiness simply by looking at the world in a more positive way?

 

"If you have no goal other than your personal happiness, you'll never achieve it. If you want to be happy, pursue something else vigorously and happiness will catch up with you."

[This is another common unscientific claim in the literature. There is no evidence that vigorous pursuit of important goals will guarantee happiness. It still matters to make progress towards the goal. Vigorous pursuit of important goals without success is likely to make people unhappier.]

 

A plus is that the article mentions the recent Inglehart study which shows that average happiness increased in many countries (we will have to see how this trend will do after the change in economic conditions in 2007). However, the attempt to quantify this increase failed. “Overall, happiness increased 6.8 percentage points.” This is false because happiness cannot be measured on a ratio-scale. As a result, it is impossible to quantify increases in terms of percentages. 

 

It's true," Seligman says. "We're happier. [Who is we? US American average levels of self-reported happiness have not increased notably – and several articles claim it has actually decreased – over the past 40 years.] Maybe what changed is Seligman’s perception of the world. In 1994 he saw an “epidemic of depression” and attributed to the rise in individualism – the very same cause that is no supposed to produce more happiness in the world. Well, maybe we are happier and more depressed. (Seligman, Depression Epidemic)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archive

Although wellbeingscience.org only started in May 2008, I will post links to interesting news articles from previous years.

2007

2006

2005

2003

1993

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