Be Happy

There is a significant electoral dividend in improving people’s happiness, and it’s not just about money, stresses the World Happiness Report

By Author  |  Published: 24th Mar 2019  12:10 amUpdated: 23rd Mar 2019  10:34 pm

Indians are less happy in 2019 than in 2018. We are down seven spots from the 133rd position in 2018 to the 140th position, in this year’s World Happiness Report. The report, released on the occasion of the World Happiness Day on March 20, evaluates global data and evidence to assess quality of people’s lives or their “happiness” quotient and ranks the world’s 156 countries on “how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be”. It ranks countries on six key variables that enable happiness — GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and absence of corruption.

Finland is the happiest country in the world. The Nordic nation is followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and The Netherlands. Pakistan is ranked 67th, Bangladesh at 125th and China at 93rd. People in war-torn South Sudan are the most unhappy with their lives, followed by Central African Republic (155), Afghanistan (154), Tanzania (153) and Rwanda (152). The US is ranked 19th, despite being one of the richest countries in the world. The report also notes that there has been an increase in negative emotions, including worry, sadness and anger.

The World Happiness Report, released annually since 2012, often has a central theme. This year, the focus is on happiness and community: how happiness has been changing over the past dozen years, and how information technology, governance and social norms influence communities. So, it deals with the following three specific sets of factors:

• Links between government and happiness

• The power of prosocial behaviour

• Changes in information technology

Government and Happiness

The idea that policymakers should aim for something beyond GDP is far from new, but it has regained prominence in recent years. A growing contingent of governments and international organisations are beginning to focus their attention on the “happiness” or subjective well-being (SWB) of citizens. Some governments now produce national well-being statistics, while many others also go further and use SWB data and research to inform their policymaking decisions.

This report reviews some of the research on SWB and political behaviour, and assesses the evidence for some of the key questions. For example, are happier people any more or less likely to engage with politics and, when it comes to it, turn out to vote? And if so, does their level of happiness influence whom they ultimately vote for? In particular, are happier people any likelier to vote to re-elect governing parties? And to what extent might levels of (un)happiness play a role in driving support for populist and authoritarian politicians?

On the one hand, people who are more satisfied with their lives may feasibly disengage from politics, having already reached a level of comfortable apathy. In this sense, it has been speculated that raising happiness could lead to “an emptying of democracy”. But on the other hand, a growing literature on the ‘objective benefits of subjective well-being’ has shown that happiness has important effects on a variety of pro-social behaviours. Happier people are, for example, more likely to volunteer in the community and donate money to charity. But does this translate also to engagement in the political sphere?

One answer to this question uses data from the American National Election Survey (ANES). The data on a sample of around 1,300 US citizens shows a strong positive relationship between life satisfaction and turnout. The estimated coefficient on life satisfaction suggests that being very satisfied, as opposed to not very satisfied, is associated with a 6.7 percentage point change in the probability of voting – a magnitude that rivals that of education.

Along the same lines, other research has shown that in the United States people who are depressed are less likely to vote.

Further, it has also been found that in rural China there is a positive correlation between happiness and voting in local village elections. Using panel data from the United Kingdom, as people become happier over time, their
propensity to vote also increases. A one-point increase in life satisfaction is associated with a 2% increase in the propensity to vote in an upcoming election.

The report also states that “happier people are not only more likely to engage in politics and vote, but are also more likely to vote for incumbent parties.” So there appears to be a significant electoral dividend to improving happiness, beyond ensuring a buoyant economic situation.

Power of Prosocial Behaviour

Humans are an extremely prosocial species. Compared to most primates, humans provide more assistance to family, friends, and strangers, even when costly. Why do people devote their resources to helping others? The report examines whether engaging in two specific types of prosocial behaviour, mainly donating one’s time and money to others, promotes subjective well-being, which encompasses greater positive effect, lower negative effect, and greater life satisfaction.

Researchers analysed data from the Gallup World Poll, a survey comprising representative samples from over 130 countries. Across both poor and wealthy countries, there is a positive relationship between volunteer participation and well-being. There are also critical conditions predicting when and for whom volunteering promotes well-being. In a study of more than 1,000 community dwelling older adults living in the US, volunteering was linked to greater well-being for individuals who believe that other people are fundamentally good versus those higher in hostile cynicism and believe other people are selfish and greedy.

Moreover, spending money on others – often called prosocial spending – is associated with higher levels of well-being. For instance, individuals who pay more money in taxes – thereby directing a portion of their income to fellow citizens through public goods – report greater well-being in over two decades of German panel data. In a representative sample of over 600 American adults, individuals who spent more money in a typical month on others by providing gifts and donating to charity reported greater happiness. More broadly, responses from more than one million people in 130 countries surveyed by the Gallup World Poll indicates that financial generosity – measured as whether one has donated to charity in the past month – is one of the top six predictors of life satisfaction around the world

The report identifies several key ingredients that seem to be important for turning good deeds into good feelings. Specifically, people are more likely to derive joy from helping others when:

• they feel free to choose whether or how to help

• they feel connected to the people they are helping

• they can see how their help is making a difference

Digital Media Impact

Over the last decade, the amount of time adolescents spend on screen activities (especially digital media such as gaming, social media, texting, and time online) has steadily increased. By 2018, 95% of United States adolescents had access to a smartphone, and 45% said they were online “almost constantly”.

During the same time period that digital media use increased, adolescents began to spend less time interacting with each other in person, including getting together with friends, socialising, etc. They spent less time reading books and magazines and perhaps most crucially less time sleeping. In tandem, there was a general decline in happiness.

This means adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and adolescents who spend more time on most other activities are happier. In other words, digital media may have an indirect effect on happiness as it displaces time that could be otherwise spent on more beneficial activities.

So going forward, individuals and organisation need to focus on improving their own happiness as well as of their employees.