THE normally dry science of economics has found a new means of expressing a nation’s wellbeing. Instead of studying the gross domestic product, a team of researchers has decided that happiness is the best indicator of a country’s relative success.
They have devised a test to calculate a population’s satisfaction with their everyday lives or lack of it. The sum of those individual accounts has produced a new measurement: the gross national happiness.
It opens up the possibility that one day international comparisons of nations will not be based on the goods and services they produce. They will be judged on the cheerful disposition of their inhabitants.
Led by Professor Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University psychologist who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, the team worked on the premise that money and good health were not necessarily the cornerstones of an enjoyable life.
“Measures of wealth or health do not tell the whole story of how society as a whole or a particular population is doing,” Kahneman said last week.
Gross national happiness is worked out using a new technique called the day reconstruction method in which people are asked to recollect memories of the previous working day by writing a short diary.
They are told to think of their day as a series of episodes in a film and are asked a series of questions about how they felt during each event or activity.
They then give a mark on their enjoyment of each episode on a scale of one to six. The totals are divided by the number of hours taken by each activity to produce a simple score for the day.
The work, undertaken by both economists and psychologists in three US universities, is in its initial stages but a pilot scheme has already been tested on 909 American working women.
They assessed how the women felt during 28 types of activity and found that sex, relaxing with friends and having lunch with colleagues brought the most enjoyment. This was followed by watching television alone, shopping with a spouse and cooking on their own.
On the other hand, the researchers found that commuting, housework and too much contact with their boss rated as the least pleasant activities.
Surprisingly, however, taking care of children was also among the less enjoyable activities, despite people normally reporting that children are the greatest source of joy in their lives.
Professor Norbert Schwarz, a University of Michigan psychologist and co-author of a study published in the journal Science, explained the apparent contradiction.
He said: “When people are asked how much they enjoy spending time with their kids they think of all the nice things — reading them a story or going to the zoo. But they don’t take the other times into account, the times when they are trying to do something else and find the kids distracting.
“When we sample all the times that parents spend with their children, the picture is less positive than parents expect. Saying that you generally don’t enjoy spending time with your kids is terrible but admitting that they were a pain last night is quite acceptable.”
Sleep quality had a large effect on the enjoyment of life. Women who slept poorly, on average, enjoyed their day as little as a typical person enjoys commuting. In contrast, those who usually slept well enjoyed their day as much as most people enjoy watching television. Tight work deadlines were also a powerful factor in upsetting women’s daily moods.
But general life circumstances — such as wealth, job security, or whether someone is single or married — had a relatively small impact on their happiness. As long as the women were not battling poverty, income did not have an influence.
Breaking down the day to look at levels of enjoyment or misery during each activity allows people to see how they can shape their overall happiness by doing more or less of a particular task or pastime, according to Schwarz. “If you want to improve your wellbeing, make sure that you allocate your time wisely. Thinking about one’s time allocations may be the most effective way to improve one’s life.
“We find, for example, that commuting is a very negative experience that takes up considerable time every day. Income, however, has relatively little influence on daily feelings. You may be better off arranging for more sleep than working for a pay rise,” Schwarz said.
Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. When the researchers examined the amount of time spent on the various activities, they found that people spent the bulk of their waking hours engaged in the activities they enjoyed the least, including work, housework and commuting.
Dr Richard Suzman, associate director of the National Institute on Ageing, part of the US National Institutes of Health, added: “The construction of a national wellbeing account that supplements the measure of gross national product with a measure of aggregate happiness is a revolutionary idea.
“A national wellbeing account, similar to the gross domestic product, would give us a better understanding of how changes in policy and social trends affect quality of life.”