Friday, March 2, 2012

The Happiness Quotient

I was surprised to see in the most recent edition of The Costco Connection a discussion of "happiness research." The question for debate is "Should governments make policy based on "happiness research"?

My credibility detector went up immediately.

Economist John Helliwell says: "Happiness research, known as the science of well-being, has produced important insights for governments, community organizations, businesses and families. Research has shown that having money is a strong support for happiness, but it's not enough."

He further writes" "Research has also shown that...moving up only one point on a 10-point scale that assesses trust in management would increase the happiness of typical employees as much as would a one-third increase in income."

Helliwell's wording is common to arguments that have less than rigorous scientific substance: "research has shown" is one of the most common. It is often questionable just what research has shown, as it is often questionable just what the quality of any research was. Was it peer-reviewed, duplicated, extensive enough, conclusive or merely suggestive? Also the passive construction is typical of vagueness - whose research? whose research dollars funded it? where was it published?

Also words like "insight," "typical," "trust," "management," aren't the words of science, just as "happiness " was not until recently. What is the 10-point scale that assesses trust in management; how was that scale created? what were the principles involved? And who is the typical employee? Presumably anyone who would be happier with trust in management than in getting a substantial raise. And why the word "income," and not the words "wages," "benefits'" or "salary"?

Martin Masse, VP of content at the Montreal Economic Institute, elucidates some concerns and problems: "Much of the debate in the field of happiness research centres on the correlations that can or cannot be found between some factor and how happy people feel."

 The idea of correlation  is important - happiness and some factor occur in some related, but not necessarily causal way. Additionally, one's happiness level is very subjective, and what makes people happy is not universal. Concrete, measurable things like the GDP are much better tools on which to base policy.

Masse also says that using the results of happiness research "as a basis for government policies opens the door to social engineering on a massive scale."

 In Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she takes apart many of the claims for happiness "science" and looks at its history and the pay-offs for its practitioners.

Mostly, the goals are money, health, and consumer goods. Businesses, religious sects, promoters of disease management all want us to develop positive thinking and greater happiness. Not a bad deal.

The dark side is that when someone engineers less than favourable circumstances, or allows them to continue, people suffer. How convenient to blame the suffering on a lack of positive thinking; how convenient to withhold raises or roll back wages and blame the employees for not changing their thinking.

I always hear in this a reduction in wealth for the 99% and in increase for the 1%. (Funny how this happiness doesn't ever seem to apply to the rich!)

What is not surprising is that the links to more information for Costco members are to two of the most right-wing conservative think tanks in Canada. Seems they are floating these nonsensical ideas in Canadian society to see if they can boondoggle us into taking the blame if the government arranges it so that the rich get richer and the rest of get poorer.

I agree with Masse here: "...control of one's own life may be a key condition for real happiness..." And some level of financial security allows for control over one's own life. I can work out my own happiness, on my own terms, without the manipulation of conservative think tanks and the federal government.


Ciss B said...

Living without money isn't a problem. It's the mega rich and those who can barely scrape by. The middle class is gone, and the wealthily tell us we should be okay.

Oh, and for me being happy does not focus on's on the people and love in my life, being happy isn't bad it's the false happy we need to worry about I think. :-)

ChrisJ said...


You're right. I think this happiness research is a further attack on the middle class.

Ciss B said...

Sadly, I think you are right.

Owen Gray said...

On the weekend, we visited friends. Their daughter was in from Montreal. She's bright and is finishing her degree in library science.

She has rejected the happiness paradigm - lots of money, lots of things, lots of prestige.

And she seems perfectly happy.

Judie said...

I do not feel in control of my life right now, because I have a brachial plexus lesion (injury) and have been in constant pain. Once the pain subsides, and I can paint and play golf and type without "backspace" as my best friend, then I'll be happy.

Government taking hold of the "happiness quotient" will mean only one thing--they'll be happy with their great big salaries, and we'll NOT!!

A most interesting post, ChrisJ!!!

ChrisJ said...


Sounds like a very smart way to be.

ChrisJ said...


I'm sorry you are feeling unwell. Hope the pain goes away soon - pain is so debilitating. Hugs.

ChrisJ said...
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