Saturday, November 11, 2017

Where is the best place to live?

The pathway above Orion beach, Vincentia, NSW, Australia

Over the last few months I have had personal reasons to ponder this question. My wife and I decided that the time had come for us to move closer to family and downsize.

I can’t claim that I reviewed research relating to the question in a systematic way before we decided where we should live. However, I have been reading and writing about happiness research for over a decade, so that probably had some influence.
Since we made our decision I have read some of the more recent literature on the impact of happiness of location. Perhaps my recent reading could be explained in terms of seeking additional evidence to support the decision we have made, but I do find the topic intrinsically interesting.

My intention here is to discuss research findings on the impact of location on happiness rather than to attempt to justify our decision.  Relocation decisions made by different individuals and families obviously need to reflect their differing values and changing priorities at different stages of life.

If you do an internet search on “happiness best place to live” one of the first items to come up is likely to be an article telling you that according to a major Gallup poll, Hawaii is the U.S. state with the highest well-being ranking, with the top score in the physical, financial and community categories. If you search for the cities that are the best places to live, you are likely to find articles based on Gallup polls which suggest that the cities that score highest are near the ocean. When you read on you find that there is more involved than just beachside living. Research by Andrew Oswald has shown that average life satisfaction levels in different places closely correlate with objective measures of the quality of life – as measured sunshine hours, congestion, air quality etc.

Survey data on the happiness of people in different federal electorates in Australia suggests that many of the happiest electorates in Australia are not close to the coast (although the New South Wales south coast electorate of Gilmore, where we have lived for the last 12 years, is among the top five). Some of the unhappiest electorates in the country are in suburban Sydney. Some headlines claiming that major cities create unhappy Australians prompted me to write sceptically on this topic a couple of years ago. I suggested that current life satisfaction is not the only important consideration in making location decisions. Many families face trade-offs between current and future life satisfaction.

I recommend that people considering a move should also read an article by Brad Waters in Psychology Today which draws upon the insights of Daniel Kahneman to make the point that life satisfaction is influenced by many factors other than location. He suggests that people considering relocation should ask themselves: “Does a move satisfy those factors or does it temporarily distract us from satisfying them?”

There is evidence of substantial benefits from living in a location where it is possible to see family and friends frequently. For example, research by Nick Powdthavee, undertaken about a decade ago, suggested that the benefits of seeing relatives and friends “most days” rather than “less than once a month” was greater than the benefit of getting married and was sufficient to compensate for about two-thirds of the happiness loss from such events as unemployment or going through a separation.

A couple of years ago when I wrote about the link between happiness and nature connectedness I speculated that some part of the correlation between nature connectedness and happiness is associated with “feeling connected”. Feeling connected to nature might be similar in that respect to feeling connected with family, friends or community.

Evidence continues to accumulate that actual contact with the natural environment has positive benefits for health and happiness. For example, a study conducted by Simone Kuhn (and others) for the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (discussed in this Forbes article) found that city dwellers who live near forests were more likely to have healthy amygdalas and thus better able to manage stress, anxiety and depression. A study by Chris Neale (and others) using mobile EEG has found that when walking in urban green space old people had a higher level of engagement and lower levels of excitement than when walking in both busy urban commercial streets and quiet urban space. The authors concluded that the urban green space seemed to have a restorative effect on brain activity.

An article by Ming Kuo has identified 21 plausible pathways linking nature to human health and has postulated that one pathway, enhanced immune functioning, may be of central importance.

Thoughts along those line prompted me to begin reading The Secret Life of Your Microbiome, why nature and biodiversity are essential to health and happiness, by Susan Prescott and Alan Logan. Perhaps I will write more about that later.

Meanwhile, my bottom line is that, other things equal, it might be a good idea to find a place to live where you can spend a fair amount of time in the natural environment with family and friends. Unfortunately, many people in this world do not currently have the luxury of making that choice.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why might economic development influence how unhappy people feel when they don't get the love they desire?

There is evidence that a discrepancy between the amount of self-transcending emotion (e.g. love, trust) that people want to feel and what they actually feel has an adverse impact on their happiness.  Researchers have observed that this adverse impact is greater for people in countries with relatively high levels of economic development.

What is it about economic development that could explain this?

Before canvassing possible explanations I need to provide some background information. The evidence referred to above is in a recent article entitled ‘The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?  by Maya Tamir, Shalom H. Schwartz, Shige Oishi, and Min Y. Kim. The study was based on a cross-cultural sample of 2,324 participants from 8 countries around the world.  I wrote about the main findings of the article on this blog in my last post entitled: What was Aristotle’s secret of happiness?

As indicated in the diagram reproduced above, the authors found that the absolute discrepancy between desired and experienced self-transcending emotions had a larger impact on life satisfaction and depressive symptoms of people in countries with relatively high ratings on the Human Development Index (HDI).

Evidence that economic development influences the impact of emotional discrepancy on happiness was only observed in respect of self-transcending emotions. The findings of the study suggest that economic development has no influence on the way discrepancies between desired and experienced anger, excitement and calmness impact on life satisfaction and depressive symptoms.

So, what is it about economic development that could explain why it seems to make happiness levels more sensitive to feeling the right amount of love? The authors suggest that perhaps “for people who struggle to meet their basic needs the amount of love they actually feel matters more for their happiness than whether this amount feels right or not”. They suggest that this would not apply to other emotions because love is “linked to social connectedness”, which “is presumably a basic human need and a key determinant of well-being”.

I’m not sure I understand what the authors mean. Anger might also be linked to social connectedness. Angry people might find it harder to maintain strong social connections.

A distinguishing feature of love, relative to emotions such as anger, is that when people are asked how much love they feel they could think of either how much they feel loved by others, or how much love they feel toward others.

If we think in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it might be reasonable to speculate that people whose basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied might place higher priority on obtaining love than those who are struggling to meet their basic needs. In economic terms this could be thought of as an upward shift in the marginal utility of love as incomes rise. That could explain why a shortfall in love obtained relative to the desired level seems to have a larger impact on happiness of people in countries with relatively high HDI ratings.

That is just speculation. The authors suggest future research should explore further “when, why, and how” the links between emotion discrepancies and well-being vary across countries. It will be interesting to see what eventuates.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What was Aristotle's secret of happiness?

Aristotle held that being happy is the same as living well and doing well – it involves fulfillment of potentials inherent in each individual human. From this perspective, happiness is activity in conformity with virtue. It is acquired through practice in much the same way as one might learn an art or craft. Aristotle’s view rests on the view that emotions are not inherently good or bad. Virtue lies in avoiding excess or deficiency:
For example, one can be frightened or bold, feel desire or anger or pity, and experience pleasure and pain in general, either too much or too little, and in both cases wrongly; whereas to feel these feelings at the right time, on the right occasion, towards the right people, for the right purpose and in the right manner, is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount - and the best amount is of course the mark of virtue. And similarly, there can be excess, deficiency, and the due mean in actions. Now feelings and actions are the objects with which virtue is concerned; and in feelings and actions excess and deficiency are errors, while the mean amount is praised, and constitutes success; and to be praised and to be successful are both marks of virtue.” Nicomachean EthicsBook 2.

Aristotle acknowledged “happiness does seem to require the addition of external prosperity”, but he regarded notions that happiness can be identified with wealth, pleasure, health, honour or good fortune as superficial.

Aristotle’s view also differs from the modern view of happiness as a state of contentment, as satisfaction with life, or as the absence of symptoms of depression.

Many psychologists maintain that since Aristotle’s teachings on happiness were about ethics - how people should live their lives – they have little relevance to the question of what makes people happy. Subjective well-being research has been dominated by the view that happiness is about the balance between pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Even the use of life satisfaction, which has some cognitive content, has been grounded largely in utilitarian philosophy. More recently, some researchers have sought to introduce eudaimonic considerations by asking respondents about feelings of autonomy and competence, the quality of personal relationships and whether they feel that their lives are meaningful.

Aristotle would not have accepted a distinction between living a virtuous life and living a pleasant life. He maintained: “happiness is at once the best, the noblest, and the pleasantest of all things”. Similar views have been expressed by some modern philosophers. For example, Neera Badhwar writes: “the integration of emotional dispositions with intellectual (especially deliberative dispositions), which is required by virtue, makes virtue highly conducive to happiness, since a common source of unhappiness is conflict between our emotions and our evaluations” (Well-being, Happiness in a worthwhile life, p 152).

Can Aristotle’s view about the desirability of minimising the excess or deficiency of emotions be tested empirically? Some conditions need to be met before empirical testing is possible. First, we need a measure of human flourishing. In the absence of anything better, we might need to be prepared to accept some standard measures of life satisfaction, for example, as an indicator of human flourishing. Second, we need to be able to accept that the individual is an appropriate judge of “right feelings”, so that any excess or deficiency of emotion can be measured as the difference between right feelings and actual feelings. I’m not sure whether Aristotle would have accepted the second condition, but I don’t have a problem with it.

Some such testing has been reported in a recent article entitled ‘The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?’  by Maya Tamir, Shalom H. Schwartz, Shige Oishi, and Min Y. Kim. The study was based on a cross-cultural sample of 2,324 participants from 8 countries around the world. The researchers used statistical analysis to explain happiness in terms of the discrepancy between desired and actual emotion. Their analysis controlled for experienced emotion, desired emotion and some other variables. They measured happiness both as life satisfaction and the absence of depressive symptoms. The analysis focused on four categories of emotion: self-transcending emotions (love, affection, trust, empathy, compassion); negative self-enhancing emotions (anger, contempt, hostility, hatred); opening emotions (interest, curiosity, excitement, enthusiasm, passion); and conserving emotions (calmness, relaxation, relief, contentment).

As expected, the researchers found that people were happier the more they experienced pleasant emotions and the less they experienced unpleasant emotions. However, they also found that people were happier when they experienced smaller discrepancies between the emotions they experienced and the emotions they desired.

In accordance with the Aristotelian prediction people were happier when they felt the emotion they desired, even when that emotion was unpleasant.

The authors concluded:

“The secret to happiness, then, may involve not only feeling good but also feeling right.”

The authors note that their findings are consistent with two different interpretations: happiness is related to experiencing the emotions one desires, or happiness is related to desiring the emotions one experiences. In either case it may be reasonable to speculate that awareness of a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion leads people to engage in struggles that make them unhappy – whether they are struggling to change their cognitions or their emotions.

What advice would Aristotle offer to a person who felt unhappy as a result of a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion? Would he tell that person to obtain cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help bring their emotions under the control of reason? He certainly emphasized the importance of practical reason, so he might have seen merit in CBT.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the context in which Aristotle advocated “right” emotions was more about the nature of virtue than about the emotional benefits of self-control, even though he recognised the latter aspect. In modern terms, it seemed to me that Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of emotional moderation translates to a discussion about values. The message I take is that to have lives worth living we need to look our values and to behave like the persons we want to become.

Monday, August 21, 2017

What can be done about the "game of mates"?

What is wrong with looking after your mates? If you ask any Australian chosen at random the chances are that they will tell you that it is good to help friends and acquaintances. Yet, the same person would be likely to express disapproval of people who use powerful positions in politics, public service, business and unions to look after their mates at the expense of the broader public. That is a downside of the mateship culture.

In their book, The Game of Mates, How Favours Bleed the Nation, Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters explain that “the game of mates” also involves a strong element of self-interest. When people play that game, they look after their mates in the expectation that their mates will reciprocate. The game involves the exchange of “grey gifts” among groups of mates. Grey gifts arise from political and bureaucratic discretion in interpreting and enforcing regulation. The granting of such gifts differs from theft and bribery because it is difficult to identify as corrupt or illegal in any instance. Participants do not ask for direct trades and exchanges are spread out over time.

A typical example of the game of mates involves a politician or senior bureaucrat providing grey gifts to an industry or firm and then subsequently moving to take a well-remunerated position in that firm or industry. The most important attribute the appointee brings to the new position is his, or her, ability to reward the new employer by playing the game of mates with great expertise.

Murray and Frijters make the claim - exaggerated in my view - that the game of mates enables well-connected individuals to steal roughly half of “the real wealth” of the rest of the community – whom the authors refer to as the “champion Aussies”. They give the impression that the beneficiaries of the game are wealthy and the victims are relatively poor. However, they do admit that it is possible for an individual to benefit from the game with respect to some regulations and to be a victim with respect to others. Not much attention is given to the deadweight costs of the game of mates - everyone has less incentive to work, save and invest when a substantial part of the income produced ends up funding mates’ games.

Much of the book explains how the authors see the game of mates being played in different parts of the economy. In property development, there is a game involving rezoning of land for residential use. In transportation, the game involves negotiation of public private partnerships (PPPs) to fund infrastructure projects. There are also games involving granting of mining licenses, administration of superannuation funds, banking regulation, tax dodges, regulation of pharmacies, assistance to agriculture, undue restriction of taxi licences, dominant supermarkets influencing their regulatory environment, and even the control of public universities for the benefit of private interests.

Murray and Frijters offer some remedies to disrupt the game of mates. They show insight in their suggestion that the game can be tackled more effectively by reducing the value of grey gifts - by selling them or taxing them - rather than by adding additional layers of regulation. However, they don’t seem to recognise that the best way to reduce the value of grey gifts is to reduce the extent to which the economy is subject to government regulation, and the political and bureaucratic discretion associated with it.

Some of the authors’ proposed remedies seem bizarre. For example, they suggest that foreign experts be contracted to develop new laws and regulations for their specialist industries. I wonder how they would prevent the foreign experts from playing the game of mates to benefit their buddies and amigos at the expense of “champion Aussies”.

Another bizarre suggestion is to increase competition by creating public competitor companies in industries such as banking, land development and the universities. The fact that Australian universities are still largely government-owned might have caused the authors to think a little more about the likely effectiveness of that remedy. Political appointment of boards and chief executives, combined with vast discretion for allocation of grey gifts, make government-owned enterprises part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

In my view, the book’s ideologically blinkered approach favouring government enterprises is a major shortcoming. The authors ask:
“If governments believe that they are unable to efficiently construct school buildings, hospitals, roads, or powerlines, through their own departments or government-owned companies, what magical skills do they believe they possess in order to effectively negotiate with and regulate, the powerful private interests they are selling these assets to?”

Part of the answer to this question is that trade unions – major players in the game of mates whose role is barely recognised in this book – can exert more influence over government departments and government-owned companies, than over private enterprises. Public sector managers have a strong incentive to sacrifice productivity to maintain the appearance of industrial harmony because that is what their political masters expect of them in playing the game of mates.

Another part of the answer is that it is easier for governments to remove regulation protecting private firms from competition than to remove similar barriers protecting public enterprises. For example, it is unlikely that Australia Post’s monopoly on letter carriage would be maintained if that organisation was privatised and its community service obligations (more mates’ games) were converted into transparent subsidies for people living in remote areas.

I could go on for a few thousand more words discussing the shortcomings of this book – including its highly misleading claims about banks creating credit, and its view that sovereign risk is a “mysterious idea”. However, that might be boring.

The thought I want to leave you with is that despite its many shortcomings, this book raises disturbing issues that should not be lightly dismissed. The authors deserve to have their claims subjected to detailed scrutiny, but not by me! I could change my mind about that, of course, if one of my mates can come up with a sufficiently lucrative consultancy proposal to bring me out of retirement 😊