BEIJING, Oct. 22 -- Happiness and well-being are complicated. Researchers
cite many factors, like education, nutrition, freedom from fear and violence,
gender equality, and perhaps most important, having choices, write Authur Max
and Toby Sterling.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan long ago dispensed with the notion of
Gross National Product as a gauge of well-being. The king decreed that his
people would aspire to Gross National Happiness instead.
That kernel of Buddhist wisdom is increasingly finding an echo in
international development models, which seek to establish scientific methods for
finding out what makes us happy and why.
New research institutes are being created at venerable universities like
Oxford and Cambridge to establish methods of judging individual and national
well-being. Governments are putting ever greater emphasis on promoting mental
well-being - not just treating mental illness.
"In much the same way that research of consumer unions helps you to make
the best buy, happiness research can help you make the best choices," said Ruut
Veenhoven, who created the World Database of Happiness in 1999.
When he started studying happiness in the 1960s, Veenhoven used data from
social researchers who simply asked people how satisfied they were with their
lives, on a scale of zero to 10. But as the discipline has matured and gained
popularity in the past decade, self-reporting has been found lacking.
By their own estimate, "drug addicts would measure happy all the time,"
said Sabina Alkire, of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Institute.
New studies add more objective questions into a mix of feel-good factors:
"ability to be an agent, to act on behalf of what matters to them, is
fundamental," said Alkire.
But if people say money can't buy happiness, they're only partially
Veenhoven's database, which lists 95 countries and
regions, is headed by Denmark with a rating of 8.2, followed by Switzerland,
Austria, Iceland and Finland, all countries with high per capita income. At the
other end of the scale are much poorer countries: Tanzania rated 3.2, behind
Zimbabwe, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia.
The United States just makes it into the top 15 with a 7.4 index rating.
While choice is abundant in America, nutrition and violence issues helped drag
its rating down.
Wealth counts, but most studies of individuals show income disparities
count more. Surprisingly, however, citizens are no happier in welfare states,
which strive to mitigate the distortions of capitalism than in purer free-market
"In the beginning, I didn't believe my eyes," said Veenhoven of his data.
"Icelanders are just as happy as Swedes, yet their country spends half what
Sweden does (per capita) on social welfare," he said.
In emphasizing personal freedom as a root of happiness, Alkire cited her
study of women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which showed that poor
women who make their own choices score highly, compared with women with strict
fathers or husbands.
Adrian G. White, of the University of Leicester, included twice as many
countries as Veenhoven in his Global Projection of Subjective Well-being, which
also measures the correlation of happiness and wealth. He, too, led his list
with Denmark, Switzerland and Austria.
Bhutan, where less than half the people can read or write and 90 percent
are farmers, ranks No. 8 in his list of happy nations. Its notion of GNH is
based on equitable development, environmental conservation, cultural heritage
and good governance.
US researchers have found other underlying factors:
married people are more content than singles, but having children does not raise
happiness levels; education and IQ seem to have little impact; attractive people
are only slightly happier than the unattractive; the elderly - over 65 - are
more satisfied with their lives than the young; friendships are crucial.
But the research also shows that many people are simply disposed to being
either happy or disgruntled, and as much as 50 percent of the happiness factor
is genetic. Like body weight, moods can swing only so much from their natural
So can you do anything about it? Some educators say you can.
People "can be taught emotional resilience, self-control, the habits of
optimism, handling negative thoughts and much else," Anthony Seldon, ex-British
Prime Minister Tony Blair's biographer and the headmaster of Wellington College
in Britain, wrote recently in the Financial Times.
Seldon is developing happiness courses, working with the Institute of
Well-being at Cambridge which was founded last November.
One recent book seeking to cash in on the well-being craze bears the
English title "Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed," though it's written in Dutch.
Veenhoven says the title is off base: statistically, women get depressed more
often than men, and Dutch women aren't happier than others in the wealthy West.
Veenhoven says that with the right combination of individual choices and
government policy, nations can raise their happiness quotient by as much as five
In an influential 2004 academic paper, Martin Seligman, the University of
Pennsylvania psychologist, credited with launching the positive psychology
movement in 1998, and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign encouraged policymakers to consider more than economic
development in their planning.
"Although economic output has risen steeply over the past
decades, there has been no rise in life satisfaction during this period, and
there has been a substantial increase in depression and distrust," they wrote.
British opposition leader David Cameron recently established a Quality of
Life Policy Group to examine ways governments can legislate to boost national
"It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time
we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being," he said in a
speech last year.
Even experts acknowledge the difficulty of assigning numerical scales to
feelings, and they are still grappling with how best to refine definitions.
At Cambridge's Institute of Well-being, another group has expanded the
standard happiness questionnaire to 50 items, and is incorporating it into a
European Social Survey of 50,000 people.
It aims to weigh not only personal feelings ("I'm always optimistic about
my future"), but how people function ("I feel I am free to decide for myself how
to live my life") and their relationships with others ("To what extent do you
feel that people in your local area help one another?").
"Happiness is more complicated than we originally thought," said Alkire.
(Source: Shanghai Daily)