Secrets to a satisfying life
Want to be happy? Here's a hint: it can't be bought. Economist John Helliwell identifies a range of social factors that lead to a life well lived
Many conference presenters will start off their talk with a joke, but at a gathering last November in Ottawa, economist John Helliwell began his presentation by engaging the audience in a sing-along. Introducing what he called the "social capital theme song" and encouraging his audience to join in, he began:
The more we get together, together, together.
The more we get together, the happier we'll be
Many in the crowd, recognizing the children's tune popularized by Raffi and others, followed:
And your friends are my friends
And my friends are your friends
The more we get together, the happier we'll be!
Dr. Helliwell, beaming at the success of his little test of social engagement, went on to explain to the audience how social capital and well-being are linked, the crux of his latest research. The song's lyrics are instructive. Recent studies show clearly that contacts with family, friends and neighbours are strongly associated with people's sense of well-being, or happiness.
And happy would certainly seem to describe this professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, who in his presentations shows an obvious enthusiasm for his work. Dr. Helliwell admits to feeling "invigorated" by this new phase of his research in an academic career that has already spanned some 35 years. If he has any plans for retirement, they're well hidden. In fact, just this spring he accepted - along with Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley - to co-direct a multi-year research program launched by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
The program, entitled "Social Interaction, Identity and Well-Being," is an attempt to use insights from the social sciences to improve the way economists look at the world. A basic assumption in economics is that people want to maximize their utility, or well-being, and economists have long assumed per-capita income and wealth to be reasonable measures of this. However, recent research in psychology shows many additional factors boost people's sense of well-being as much as, if not more than, their monetary worth.
Among these factors is what many refer to as social capital, or "the networks and norms that facilitate collaborative action," according to Dr. Helliwell. These include civic engagement - participation in community organizations, for example - and social interactions like those with friends and family. Other factors linked to well-being are trust (in society in general and in specific domains like the police, government, neighbours and co-workers), employment (whether paid or not), good health, a stable family and effective, high-quality government.
Income does have an effect on well-being up to a certain point, but this effect diminishes at higher income levels. What matters more is relative income - people are less happy when they think that those around them have a higher income than they do. Age, too, affects well-being, with both younger and older people happier than those in their middle years (40 to 50 years old). Dr. Helliwell is not sure what accounts for this, but hypothesizes it may be related to issues of work-life balance.
Of interest to academics is that education doesn't seem to affect well-being directly. Dr. Helliwell hastens to add, however, that it does affect well-being indirectly through factors such as income, health and civic engagement - variables that are all known to be correlated with education.
"If you buy the whole story [about the factors influencing well-being], it will offer you the opportunity to change the way you think about life," says Dr. Helliwell. "Once people do that, if they do that, then it affects everything they do from the moment they get up the next morning."
He gives as an example workplace satisfaction. A sense of engagement in one's work, the existence of trust in the workplace, and a feeling of being effective are all more important to the worker than having a high income. Similarly, being unemployed is devastating to well-being, not just because of lost income but also because the person loses the daily social interactions and suffers lower self-esteem. Forced retirement, for much the same reasons, is a "stupid idea."
Another example is our attempt to deal with Native issues, he says. Using the well-being model, an effort to revitalize aboriginal communities should be based on concepts such as efficacy, trust and community engagement. And yet the current process could hardly be more different. "It's all about money, with each side using otherwise unconnected lawyers hired by taxpayers," he says.
All public policy interventions should be considered in terms of their consequences for well-being, Dr. Helliwell continues. For instance, our society has professionally managed seniors' residences and professionally managed daycare centres at a time when many people don't have extended families. Looking at it from a well-being perspective, particularly in terms of engagement, you would "go out of your way to make sure the old and the young meet with each other in ways that are mutually enriching. So maybe we should be thinking of providing synthetic extended families."
The seeds of Dr. Helliwell's current work were planted while he was a visiting professor of Canadian studies at Harvard University in the early 1990s. Among his colleagues was political scientist Robert Putnam, who popularized the concept of social capital, first in an academic paper in 1995 and later in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000 (it was Dr. Putnam who thought of calling that insightful campfire song the "social capital theme song").
The two academics have since collaborated on a number of papers, including a look at social capital and economic growth. They were able to show that higher levels of social capital, measured by such things as civic engagement and trust, were correlated with higher income levels. If that's the case, Dr. Helliwell mused, then "it doesn't take a whole lot of intuition to think that maybe that's not the only channel through which social capital influences life."
At around the same time, Dr. Helliwell was introduced to the World Values Survey, which over the past 25 years has conducted four "waves" of an international survey on people's values and beliefs (the fifth wave began in July 2005 and will be completed near the end of this year). One of the questions in the survey asks respondents to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, their level of general satisfaction with life. Using these survey data, Dr. Helliwell was able to show that factors related to social capital are indeed strong determinants of life satisfaction (the terms "life satisfaction" and "well-being" are not quite the same, but the former is often thought to be the best single measure of the latter).
The recent Equality, Security and Community Survey funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council included detailed questions on life satisfaction, as did Statistics Canada's 2003 General Social Survey and the 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey. All of these have helped to fuel Dr. Helliwell's research. "These are large, well-organized, well-defined surveys. They're geo-coded, so you can link them up to census data. It's a very powerful database."
Still, some economists are not fully convinced of the validity of subjective measures of well-being. They're skeptical that people's estimates of how they feel have actual behavioural consequences. Dr. Helliwell believes strongly that they do, and he has empirical evidence to back that up.
In a recent study, he looked at suicide data across countries and found "to an extraordinary extent" that well-being and suicide are related to the same variables. For example, social capital, higher levels of trust and better government are associated with lower national suicide rates, just as they are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being.
"What this is saying is that the subjective data are in fact tapping in to something that's real," he says. "They are telling a compelling and consistent story." Dr. Helliwell hopes to add a few more chapters to that story over the next few years.
The pursuit of happiness
The constitutional slogans of Canada and the U.S. offer some interesting insights in the search for well-being, says Dr. Helliwell. "Nobody chooses constitutional motifs on the basis of psychological research, but there's no doubt from the data that 'Peace, Order and Good Government' trumps 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.'"
Peace and order are somewhat vague terms, but can be linked to social-capital concepts of trust and efficacy. And good government is unambiguously related to well-being.
As for life, "that is kind of a gimme," he says. Liberty, meanwhile, has no effect on well-being once measures of quality and efficiency of government are factored in. And "the pursuit of happiness is not a good way to achieve it. Happiness turns out to be the result of things undertaken for other motives."