Don’t Focus on Growth to the Exclusion of My Special Interest!

This smug article in Glasgow's Sunday Herald perfectly exemplifies the extremely shady way happiness research is put to use for political purposes, and why we must unfortunately keep a skeptical eye on those who brandish alleged data on happiness. Here's the start:

THE most important item in the Cultural Commission’s report, which was buried unceremoniously last summer, informs us that the Greek government’s ambition is to reduce all measurement of public policy down to one indicator – does it make people happier?

By that index, much of what modern governments do is a failure. Concentrating on economic growth to the exclusion of almost everything else has only succeeded in making us more miserable. The evidence shows that though most of us have become richer in the last 30 years, we’ve also become unhappier.

This is just gobsmacking ignorance. The correlation between rate of growth and the number of people reporting themselves to be “very unhappy” is negative. It's as easy as checking Nationmaster. The data is plain. Wealthier in general is happier. (The relationship is weak, sure. But a weak positive relationship isn't no relationship, and definitely isn't a negative one.)

As I reported in this post on the specious depression statistics, Branchflower and Oswald, “Well-Being Over Time in Britain and the USA,” show that, in the US, the number of folks reporting that they are “not too happy” (on the three option survey) dropped from 14% in the 1972-1976 period to 12% in the 1994-1998 period (which is up from the 1988-1993 low of 10%). Similarly, in Britain, the number reporting “not at all” and “not very” (on the four option survey) was 4% and 11% respectively in the 1972-1976 period, and 3% and 10% in the 1994-1998 period. So where's the unhappier?

Say! How are the author's neighbors in the Republic of Ireland doing? Ireland had a jawdropping 7.9% average rate of growth from 1994-2004. That's 3.0% greater than the country with the the next highest growth, South Korea. (And 3% is itself a very healthy growth rate.) So, have the nouveau riche Irish become less happy? Nope. They're pleased as punch with their pots o' gold.

This Harris Poll, based on the Eurobarometer life satisfaction questions, shows the Irish near the top (of European countries, plus the US) in the percentage of the population reporting themselves Very Satisfied or Fairly Satsified. But perhaps more important, the high-growth Irish decisively lead in the percentage of the population who think that their life has improved in the last five years.

In contrast, the Germans, with the third worst growth among OECD countries over the last decade (1.5%), are gloomy. 84% of Germans say they are Very or Fairly Happy, compared to 93% of the Irish. 35% of Germans say their life got worse over the past five years, compared to just 11% of the Irish. 26% of Germans predict live will get worse in the next five years. Only 5% of the Irish think things will go downhill.

So, Richard Holloway, chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, I call bullshit. Bullshit, sir!

Oh, but wait. Shockingly, the chairman of the arts council wants us to know that more government money spent on something in particular will make us all happier. What do you think it is? One guess!

People are not just passive recipients of the happiness that art brings them – they are participants as well. Scotland is full of writers’ workshops and jazz clubs and dance classes and water colourists and fiddlers and pipers and brass bands and choral societies and drama groups and basket weavers and glass blowers and dry-stane-dykers . The doing of these things sees us at our best and most distinctively human and creative. More to the point, these are the activities that energise and fulfil us. They give us joy – the best therapy on Earth.

So why doesn’t government get it? Why doesn’t it realise that happy people are healthier, more caring – less trouble, in fact – and invest wholeheartedly in the happiness economy?

Hmm . . .

According to this article:

The figures from the European Commission on total spending on arts and culture in member states strongly suggest that Ireland is bottom of the class when it comes to [arts] spending in Europe. (Ireland’s per capita spending on the arts and culture in 2003 was only €23.15.)

Yet the happy, fast-growing Irish think life just keeps getting better all the time. How could that be!

Bullshit, sir.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy. Please leave your comments there.]