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Struggling to Find Happiness in the Age of Austerity

by Olivia Ward

We’re fed up, teed-off, mad as hell. And we’re not going to take it any more.

At Occupy Wall Street, a sign of intemperate times: President Obama laughing with various prominent politicians during a snowstorm. (John Minchillo/AP) But whoa.

While protests burst national boundaries and a wave of anger roils across the world, there’s a growing urge to measure national happiness, well-being and what people like about their lives.

Given the current sour mood, experts say, that could be a good thing.

If we know what makes people happy, it should be easier to know what plunges them into countrywide malaise.

So governments from tiny Bhutan to giant China, France, Britain, Bolivia, the U.S. and Canada are poring over statistics in the hope of finding the key to national content. An idea that might warrant a cynical shrug as economic indicators slither south and jobs follow.

Can we find happiness in the age of austerity?

“Some may wonder whether it is opportune to talk about well-being, rather than just focusing on the economic growth needed to get our countries out of this crisis,” says Angel Gurria, chief of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. “I strongly believe that . . . we have to consider a broader picture in our policy-making because a ‘growth as usual’ approach is simply not enough.”

Not, it seems, for the protesters.

“The reason the happiness and well-being agenda is getting a lot of traction is the sense that we need a new paradigm,” says Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution in Washington, hailed as a pioneer in the field of “happiness economics” and author of The Pursuit of Happiness. “The old economic model has failed.”

To pinpoint what’s going wrong — or right — the OECD has published a supersize survey titled “How’s Life,” analyzing statistics from the organization’s 34 wealthy and rising countries and a sampling of others.

It’s based on 11 indicators that resonate from Australia to Zimbabwe: income, jobs, housing, health, education, environment and personal security. Add in governance, social relationships and work-life balance and the picture becomes even sharper.

Or does it?

The study highlights daily moods, factors that lead to satisfaction and the ways in which people throughout the world assess their quality of life. But its findings show that the interplay of mood and well-being is tricky.

Surprisingly, China — the world’s roaring economic dragon — has the lowest life satisfaction on the chart, on par with stagnant Hungary and financially challenged Portugal (though far poorer countries left off the survey may well be more miserable). But when it comes to mood, or “affect balance,” the Chinese are close to the top (85.4), above middling Canadians (82.4).

“Life satisfaction captures people’s reflections on how their life is going overall,” Conal Smith, of the OECD’s statistics directorate, explains of the difference between the measures. “People tend to take into account material items and their view of how their life ‘could’ or ‘should’ be relative to others.

“By contrast, affect balance is based on what emotions people experienced on the previous day. (It) captures how people actually felt rather than how they assess their lives.”

Unexpected results on happiness have turned up in other surveys. In the United States, Princeton University economics professor Angus Deaton found smiley faces were as plentiful at the end of troubled 2010 as in the beginning of 2008, before the global meltdown.

At the same time, downward mood swings were larger than expected. And, Deaton discovered, feelings of well-being “tracked” along with the stock market indicators — even though most Americans don’t invest in equities.

“Listening to the news, you might be forgiven if you thought stock market performance was linked to reality,” scoffs David Rothkopf, author of the forthcoming book Power Inc. “Markets are oceans of teeming emotions that make the average hormone-infused high school look calmly rational, and much of the ‘data’ that moves markets is just bunk,” he wrote in the New York Times.

But in spite of the seeming inconsistencies of polls, analysts are finding that the broader the measures of well-being, the better the connection with how we really live.

The OECD admits its widely acclaimed report on public well-being has challenges. “The first is that what drives people’s life satisfaction may be ethically objectionable or affected by personal circumstances to which individuals adapt, even if that is not objectively good,” it says. A life of crime may be a joy ride for drug dealers, while poor peasant farmers are content with simply owning a bicycle.

Nor is it clear whether “subjective views are truly measurable,” because the questions may be understood differently by people with different standards.

Although the study admits it’s early yet to assess the effects of the current economic crisis, tens of thousands of people are voting with their feet, including those in seemingly upbeat Canada, Sweden and Finland. Some 82 countries have joined in, with crowds ranging from thousands to one lone protester on the Alaskan tundra.

“We’re in a state where discontent is just coming to the fore,” says Graham. “It’s not an organized movement yet, and it’s hard to tell whether it will spread or fizzle out like some others. But this is the moment when the agenda (of well-being) can move forward faster. In a booming economy it would be dismissed by conservatives as left-wing.”

In fact, governments — like protesters — are catching on that bare financial statistics and “hard facts” aren’t enough to diagnose national ills. But are they listening to the voices from the street — or to the analysts of well-being in academia?

“There’s a scary lack of awareness up to now in government and (among) average citizens,” Graham says. “In America there’s a strong sense of living in a land of opportunity. The idea that individual work gets you ahead lasted longer than our system was able to promise. It’s time for a recalibration.”

In the meantime, protests are swelling. And people are flocking to share their grievances. It may even make them happier.

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