Why measure happiness?

Measurement might sound like it’s some kind of objective process, but that’s not always the case. Last week I asked the audience at Agile in the City: Birmingham to “Quantify Your Goals”. As part of that I showed how on one of the programmes at ONS we assessed progress against a goal simply by asking an expert’s opinion. And just before that, the World Happiness Report 2017 was published. The compilers assessed happiness around the world simply by asking people.

They asked the Cantril ladder question:

Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

There is the inevitable league table of countries that comes out of this, which is fine for superficial media coverage. Bloomberg reported (as did many other outlets) that “Norway moved into the top spot as the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark and Iceland.” But the report itself said the top four countries “are clustered so tightly that the differences among them are not statistically significant” (page 3).

More interesting is the spread of scores within regions. This is something headlines don’t tell you. For example, the charts on page 14 show that average happiness in the Middle East and North Africa is about the same as in Southeast Asia, but there is a much wider spread of difference, suggesting greater inequality—at least in terms of life happiness. But numbers like means and standard deviations—and even charts—are imperfect summaries of reality, and cannot reflect the complexity of life on the ground.

In the end we have to ask “So what?” Almost by definition happiness is a good thing, and we’d all like more of it. Just publishing the report stimulates a conversation which might improve things in small ways between individuals. To add more, the report goes into some detail of how happiness might be modelled. However, different governments may treat this in different ways. In a democratic country, where the government might be easily replaced, the modelling may be more useful than in a dictatorship, where the government is really only interested in the population not revolting. It’s notable North Korea hasn’t been surveyed, and we can assume the report won’t be circulated there, either.

Asking “So what?” allows us to focus our measurement efforts appropriately, and best understand what data is sufficient.

One thought on “Why measure happiness?

  1. “… are clustered so tightly that the differences among them are not statistically significant”
    Makes me think of US presidential voting, or Brexit referendum, and similar…

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