A “Happy” World Requires Institutional Change

Happiness is hot it seems. The United Nations has an International Day of Happiness, conferences and summits on the subject abound, and the most popular class at Yale is Laurie Santos’s lecture course on happiness. Author Adam Sternbergh provides a “cheat sheet” for the class and observes that:

The very fact that Santos’s new course, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life, is so wildly popular, with over 1,200 enrolled students, suggests that she’s on to something when she tells me one day, pre-lecture, “College students are much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been. I think we really have a crisis writ large at colleges in how students are doing in terms of self-care and mental health.”

It would be snarky, I suppose, to suggest that this might have anything to do with the man in the White House, and the 38-year effort to widen inequality and strip the safety net to the bones that started with trickle-down economics, since after all, it’s even true at so privileged a bastion of higher learning as Yale. Yet it’s not completely surprising, considering that when I entered college in 1964, tuition was practically free, grade pressures were far less intense, few students emerged with the shocking debt loads that are now commonplace, and even if you didn’t land a cushy job right off the bat, rents were affordable.

But no, that’s not the problem, says Sternbergh. If you’re not happy, he suggests, it turns out it’s almost all in your genes and your head.

In her second lecture, Santos looks at the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness. Lyubomirsky is well known for her thought experiment about what affects our happiness, which she expresses in a pie chart: She proposes that roughly 50 percent of happiness is determined by genes (i.e., totally out of your control), roughly 10 percent is determined by circumstance (i.e., somewhat out of your control), and the final 40 percent is determined by your thoughts, actions, and attitudes (i.e., entirely within your control).

If only 10 percent of happiness is attributable to life conditions, then it’s pretty simple: You don’t need to alter them that much; political and economic change is actually an afterthought and may not be worth the effort. And you can’t do anything about your genetics. What you can do, the theory suggests, is change your attitudes and behaviors, more important by a factor of four than making ends meet, apparently.

The Meme as Myth

However, this idea, no matter how popular, is demonstrably false. The World Happiness Report ranks happiness or life satisfaction in 156 of the world’s countries. The data comes from Gallup, which polls about 1,000 people in each of these countries every year. Subjects are asked to report how satisfied they are with their lives using a popular long-running measure called the Cantril Scale and two other similar questions.

There is remarkable consistency to Gallup’s findings as reported by the UN. The highest-scoring countries’ mean results fall in the high sevens, and essentially the same ones show up each year in slightly different order. This year, it’s Finland at 7.6, last year Norway, and, in most years since the report first came out in 2012, it was Denmark. The United States usually shows up in the mid-teens; this year it was number 18 (at 6.9, a sizeable drop from its 7.2 score in the period 2008-2010, the height of the recession; meanwhile 106 countries showed improvement or slipped less than the US did between 2010 and 2017).

The top countries always include the Nordic nations, plus the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and Canada. By contrast, the lowest-scoring countries are consistently in sub-Saharan Africa. This year, Burundi bottomed out at 2.9.

The 2016 UN report often also measured standard deviation — the variance in countries from their own mean — which tells us how widely distributed happiness is within a nation. It might not come as a shock that the standard deviation is very wide for the United States, whose income gap is the widest among rich countries; in 2016, we were number 85 in the world by that measure. Number 1 was a small, poor, but egalitarian country — Bhutan — where the idea of measuring happiness is national policy. Most Bhutanese have scores close to its mean of 5.1

Now, to get back to Lyubomirsky’s 50/40/10 meme. It seems a stretch to say that only 10 percent of the vast gap between the 7.6 and 2.9 scores in life satisfaction that separate Finland and Burundi can be attributed to life conditions. Such a view is not only statistically inconceivable, it could well be considered racist. Are the people of Burundi genetically inferior to the Finns, or are their behaviors and attitudes dramatically different (again not very likely)?

What seems evident from this data is that life conditions account for almost all of the difference between the two countries — these include incomes, but also social support, health, freedom, generosity and perceived levels of corruption and trust, according to the UN report. The latest UN report shows that immigrants report roughly the same levels of life satisfaction as the native-born — in Finland, immigrants also score 7.6, and in the US, they also score 6.9 — itself an indication that as their life conditions improve, so does their happiness. Of course, immigrants aren’t flocking to Burundi.

And if this were not evidence enough that the 50/40/10 meme is deficient, two scholars, Nicholas Brown and Julia Rohrer, have recently pointed out that the survey data that was the basis for Lyubomirsky’s calculations is itself suspect, having been gathered from a US-only sample conducted in 1972 and 1973, at a time when the United States was far more egalitarian than it is today.

I certainly would have no problem if Lyubomirsky suggested that in relatively homogenous samples her 50/40/10 pie does predict most differences in happiness; indeed, I suspect that in egalitarian nations such as the Nordic countries or Japan, her numbers hold up well. But that’s a far cry from extending the meme to the entire world (or even to the sharply unequal United States), where conditions of life seem to make up most of the differences.

Hijacking Happiness

While Lyubomirsky’s more global theory of the “happiness pie” succumbs to scrutiny and carries the danger of making political and economic change seem irrelevant, her suggestions for increasing personal happiness — don’t focus on money, cultivate your spiritual being, be generous, help others, do work that is meaningful, and so forth — aren’t at all objectionable. Without question, they can help make individuals happier, but their validity isn’t dependent on the big 50/40/10 theory behind them and should not be considered a substitute for institutional change.

Yet there are other ways in which the newfound focus on happiness is being co-opted or hijacked. Some of the most popular happiness gurus, such as Harvard’s Shawn Achor, suggest that just the practice of smiling is an effective way to get happier. He earns a living from encouraging corporate leaders to improve productivity and the bottom line by the equivalent of passing out smile buttons. No need to pay people more or reduce organizational hierarchy or offer significant time off when you can just cajole employees into happiness. In return, they will reward you with more profit.

At a global happiness meeting in Dubai, I winced when I heard Achor make these points.

In Praise of Happiness

The science of positive psychology offers a welcome and valuable counter to the commonly-held idea in the United States that more money (even for the wealthy), economic growth and consumerism are keys to happiness. The United States is certainly richer now than in the 2008-2010 period (the heart of the great recession) but it is measurably less happy.

The UN World Happiness report and UNICEF data about the happiness or well-being of children make clear that the world’s happiest countries are the so-called “welfare states,” social democratic countries with a strong concern for equity, compassion, generous health, education and social provisions, urban design that favors community over cars, transparent, honest and representative government, and protection of the environment. On this, the real big data are clear.

If we want a happier world, there is no escaping the need for political and social reform, which must include far greater sharing of wealth among nations. Following the personal suggestions for greater happiness offered by Sonja Lyubomirsky and the positive psychologists — including greater altruism, less focus on money and achievement, more emphasis on friends and social connections, meditation or mindfulness practices — is both helpful and necessary even if it can’t explain global differences in life satisfaction. But it is no substitute for efforts to change the conditions of life as well as the habits of individuals.

NOTE: For an excellent measure of your own life satisfaction and quality of life in many of the domains measured by Bhutan and by the UN, and for excellent information on both personal and social happiness, check out the website www.happycounts.org and take the 15-minute survey it offers. You can also use the survey to begin a happiness campaign in your community.

Editor’s note: The section focused on the comments of Martin Seligman has been removed after a conversation he had with the author. The author had oversimplified Dr. Seligman’s position, and Dr. Seligman agrees that shopping is not a useful correlation for measuring well-being in a country. The author regrets the misunderstanding.