Can we predict happiness?

BLI InitiativeToday’s post is by Robb Rutledge, Max Planck University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research

What makes us happy? Well-being researchers have identified many variables related to happiness, but we still don’t know exactly how the events of our daily lives combine to influence how we feel from moment to moment. People should get happier when good things happen, but clearly this is not the whole story.

We designed a study to investigate the relationship between rewards and happiness. We brought people into the lab and asked them repeatedly about their happiness as they chose between safe and risky monetary options. Risky choices were gambles with equal probabilities (like a coin toss) of a better or worse outcome. If they chose to gamble on a given trial, they then found out whether they won or lost. Based on the data, we developed a mathematical equation to predict how self-reported happiness depends on past events. We found that happiness depends not on how well things are going, but whether things are going better or worse than expected.

Happiness equation

Happiness depends on safe choices (certain rewards, CR), expectations associated with risky choices (expected value, EV), and whether the outcomes of risky choices were better or worse than expected. This final variable is called a reward prediction error (RPE), the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation. The neurotransmitter dopamine is thought to represent these signals which might explain how people learn about rewards (if you get more than you expected, next time you should expect more).

How do our findings translate to real life? As soon as you make a plan to meet a friend for dinner, your happiness should increase in anticipation. If you manage to get a last-minute reservation at a popular new restaurant, your happiness might increase even more. If the meal is good, but not quite as good as expected, your happiness should actually decrease. Our equation predicts exactly how much happiness will go up and down, and our results reveal just how important expectations are.

Happiness is a difficult thing to measure, and one concern is that something about being in the lab is important for our findings. Working with a team of researchers at University College London, we developed a smartphone app called the Great Brain Experiment. The app is free and available in the Apple and Android app stores. We invite everyone to download the app and to play the different games. By playing the games, you contribute to ongoing research on important questions in psychology and neuroscience. In the game ‘What makes me happy?’ players choose between safe and risky options to win as many points as they can.

Using our mathematical equation, we could predict the happiness of over 18 000 people worldwide playing our game. Our results demonstrate that something as complicated as happiness can be studied using smartphones. As more people play the game, we can start to look for differences between groups, like players of different ages and cultures.

To better understand the link between rewards and happiness, we also had people play our game while having their brains scanned. We found that neural activity in an area of the brain called the striatum was closely related to reported happiness. When activity was high, we could predict that happiness would increase. Because this area has many connections to dopamine neurons, one interesting possibility is that dopamine levels help determine happiness. Our equation provides predictions that we can use to study the neural circuits involved in happiness. We can ask questions like whether factors that matter for happiness in young people differ in an important way from happiness in adults. The equation also gives us a tool for identifying differences between people that may help us better understand mood disorders like major depression.

As a researcher studying happiness, people often ask me how they can be happier. Our equation might make it seem like low expectations are the secret to happiness, but that’s not the case. Low expectations do make it more likely that an outcome will exceed expectations and positively impact happiness, but expectations also affect happiness before we find out how a decision turned out. We often don’t know the outcome of major life decisions for a long time, whether taking a new job or getting married, but our results suggest that positive expectations about those decisions will increase happiness. In general, accurate expectations may be best. Our expectations help us decide where to go for dinner and tell us whether a new restaurant is as good as everyone says it is. Although we all want to be happy, being happy all of the time is probably not a good idea. If you were ecstatic after every meal, you would never be able to decide which restaurant to go to. Our happiness tells us whether things are going better or worse than expected, and that may be a very useful signal for helping us make decisions.

Low expectations may not be the secret to happiness, but being able to predict happiness based on past rewards and expectations bring us one step closer to understanding happiness. By studying how happiness depends on the interaction between our brains and our environment, we hope to yield insights that contribute to the important goal of improving human well-being.

Useful links

These findings were reported in R. B. Rutledge, N. Skandali, P. Dayan & R. J. Dolan (2014) “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS). Vol. 111, No. 33, pp. 12252-12257.

Life satisfaction on the OECD Better Life Index

Using happiness data in policy making

BLIToday’s post is by Angus Deaton, Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princeton University.

The happiness revolution is in full swing. Country statistical offices are beginning to collect data on wellbeing, the OECD has prepared a manual on how best to do it, and politicians are promising to focus, not just on economic growth and better material living standards, but on the much wider range of things that are important to people. This broadening of policy is much to be welcomed, as is the wider understanding of the inadequacies of GDP as an exclusive national target. And even if the data on wellbeing have their problems and their critics, a flawed but broader measure, such as wellbeing, can lead to better policy than a flawed but narrow one, such as income.

What are some of the things that we can do with wellbeing measures that cannot be done with standard, income based, policymaking? The concept of utility has been visible everywhere in economic texts and in economic thinking, but invisible in our databases. For goods and services that are bought and sold in markets, the invisibility of utility is not a problem because we can use prices as a guide to how much things matter to people. But that leaves uncovered the vast range of public goods and services—schools, hospitals, parks, airports, even the legal and political systems—that do not have prices. Conventional policy analysis sometimes works with “shadow” prices, the prices that would exist if these things were bought and sold. But these are hard to get right, and the numbers are often controversial. But if we can make utility visible, and measure it, then we can directly calculate how wellbeing responds to a park, or to a faster train line, and we can replace guesswork with measurement. Indeed, the “happiness” literature has estimated thousands of “happiness regressions” that show how self-reported wellbeing is affected by a wide range of circumstances, such as how income stacks up against time spent with friends, what value people place on lower pollution, or on living in a green and pleasant place.

There are many areas where people should make choices for themselves, and governments should either not interfere or should tread very lightly. Providing information is one example of light treading. If happiness regressions tell us that people are more satisfied with their lives when they choose to be clergymen, and not bar owners, or when they live in the mountains rather than in the plains, there is a role for making those facts known, perhaps endorsed by governments who might vet the quality of the research. This is what David Halpern calls “de-shrouding,” telling people how their choices might affect their wellbeing, as judged by the wellbeing of others who have already made those choices. Deshrouding would have no effect if people were fully informed, but people are often not very good at anticipating the long-term consequences of their choices. Happiness research has the potential to allow people to do better.

Even so, the results of happiness regressions must be interpreted with care. That a circumstance is correlated with life satisfaction does not automatically mean that it would be a good policy to promote more of it. Take the example of parents and children, where much of the literature finds that people who live with children are less satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Some of this is likely real, and there is good evidence that children bring a wide range of emotional experiences, including anger, stress, and worry, but also happiness and joy. Yet children do not come to people at random (blind storks?), but (usually) come to people who want them, just as those who are not parents are (usually) those who do not want children. Those who do and do not have children are different in many ways, including their tastes, not least their tastes for being parents. Comparing the wellbeing of parents and non-parents is therefore not a useful guide to young couples who are trying to decide whether or not to have children.

Consider also spatial differences in wellbeing. For example, we may discover that those who live near an airport have lower life satisfaction than those who do not. On a naïve view, people who bought houses under the flight path had no idea how much the noise would affect their lives. On a more sophisticated view, people understood that the noise was bad, but chose to live there because house prices were low, so that the noise actually provided them with an opportunity to live in a larger and more convenient house. In such a case, their low wellbeing reflects, not the noise, but that their incomes are too low to permit them to have a nice house that is also quiet. A policy of limiting noise or restricting landing hours may make such people worse off, because house prices rise, and a choice is no longer available to them. Of course, we can over-rationalize behavior, and people often do make mistakes, so that, in most cases, we have to deal with some mixture of the naïve and sophisticated.

An important question—still unanswered—is whether self-reported wellbeing is all that matters, which would simplify policymaking—or whether it is simply one thing that matters, so that people will trade it off for other good things. To illustrate the why this matters, consider that, in the U.S., once we make adjustment for educational and income differences, African Americans report substantially higher life evaluation than Whites. But African Americans suffer many deprivations beyond income and education; they are more likely to be in jail, to be banned from voting, to live in areas with low-quality schools and hospitals, to be unemployed, and to die young. Does their higher life evaluation mean that these other deprivations can be safely ignored? If not, and we refocus policy entirely towards wellbeing, we are making a mistake, just as when policy focused entirely on income.

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

Is happiness a woman ?

BLIToday’s post is by Gaël Brulé, PhD student at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Scientific Director of Spinoza Factory

Is happiness a woman ? That is at least what Nietzsche wrote in Thus spoke Zarathustra, a philosophical poem in which Zarathustra (the Persian name of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, an old Iranian religious philosophy) ironically says “Happiness runs after me, because I do not run after women. Happiness is the woman itself”.

This may seem a bit opaque, especially when you know the complicated relationship Nietzsche had with women, but nonetheless it is interesting to observe that in the scientific literature, the vast majority of happiness studies seem to indicate that women are happier than men, even if recent studies show that this gap in gender happiness has eroded in the last decades. They are happier married, happier when single, at work and pretty much throughout their life; only retired and divorced men seem slightly happier than their feminine counterparts.

If the results seem to go pretty much all in the same direction, it is thus legitimate and interesting to wonder why this is the case and, going a bit further, to see if we can give happiness a sex or a gender. Let’s see if values can shed light on this difference in happiness. Sociologist Geert Hofstede has defined a range of indicators to compare cultures in countries according to several criteria, such as power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity /femininity values. Arrindell and Veenhoven have shown that feminine values are more conducive to happiness than masculine values.

Hofstede defined the masculine values as linked to action, hierarchy, duty, power and nationalism, whereas feminine values encompass collaboration, intuition, community and egalitarianism. These criteria are very commonly used and at the same regularly criticized. The way they are measured can, indeed, be seen as ethnocentric with western criteria. The way the indicators are built can easily be questioned and the fact that they can overshadow local differences has been highlighted.

Furthermore, the actual labeling of the indexes might be debated and in particular the masculine/feminine one. Unless it is proven otherwise, these values seem mostly socially constructed, not “natural”, but these labels seem to indicate that there is something natural in the values attributed to men and women. As Georges Orwell famously wrote in his book 1984, ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’. Therefore, it might be relevant to change the labels of the two sets of values: the “feminine” cohesive values might be called horizontal values whereas the differentiating, comparative, “masculine” values could be seen as vertical values. After this semantic reflection, let’s explore what these values can reveal in terms of happiness.

The scientific literature shows that too much hierarchy isn’t a good basis for happiness to flourish. Too much competition has also been shown to hinder happiness, whereas the positive effects of collaboration on happiness have largely been proved. The “masculine” values are also linked to external values such as social status and materialism, which are negatively correlated with happiness (money is positively correlated with happiness, up to a point, but actively seeking it is not). The “feminine” societal matrix seems, therefore, a more fertile ground for happiness than the masculine one. Thus, the difference in happiness between the two sexes might be due to a difference in happiness between genders.

A macro-study shows a particularly revealing view: when comparing the countries on Hofstede’s male/female scale, one realizes that all the happiest countries are those whose structure is the most horizontal (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland), while countries endorsing vertical, “masculine” values (for instance Japan) are typically much lower in terms of happiness.

At first sight, men seem to largely benefit from a system that has been built by the patriarchate. Men are overrepresented in big companies, governments, prestigious positions. Iin brief, they largely occupy practically every high position and keep the key positions of the current economic system. Then how could men be less happy than women? Would men be the first victims of a system created by the patriarchate? One could wonder. Indeed, for instance, the very DNA of capitalism is largely anchored in “masculine” values: maximization of profits, struggle for prestige, competition.

By strictly separating gender roles – production roles for men, support roles for women – on top of keeping women away from the highest positions, has the patriarchate forced men to endorse values that handicap them in terms of happiness? It seems so. At a micro level, structures that leave the most space for women see not only their level of happiness rising, but also men’s level of happiness. From a certain “masculine” (as socially constructed) point of view, happiness is a zero-sum game, a win-lose situation. From a “feminine” point of view it is rather an expansive resource that can increase when shared.

This could encourage people who are afraid of gender studies to follow the path of leveling differences between genders. Down the path, more happiness for men and women. Letting go of the framework of the past can be hard and might hurt, but gentlemen, let us express our feminine side, it’s probably the best way towards happiness, for women, for us, for society.

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

OECD work on gender

How to improve heaven

A binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity
A binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity

Today’s article is by Andy Martin, Lecturer in the Department of French at Cambridge University. His latest book is The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre versus Camus

I was once having a chat with a Great Writer. I was an ardent admirer of his work, so I was probably a little awe-struck (now I would probably tone down the awe, but I was in a phase of youthful enthusiasm). Naturally, I raved on about one of his earlier works. He was not just modest (in fact he wasn’t really a modest guy at all), he had genuine doubts about everything he had done. He wasn’t really sure that all those novels deserved the accolades. He thought they could have been better. “And what about your women characters,” I said. “It’s funny how you have two basic types: one is sensational, beautiful, funny; and the other is a monster, cruel, evil.” “It’s the same woman,” he said, “only after I’ve married her.”

Strangely enough, I think this conversation is quite instructive as regards the OECD Better Life Index. Specifically the mystery of the “French Paradox”: how does it come about that a nation which on the face of it appears to be pulling all (or nearly all) the right stops nevertheless complains about feeling significantly sub-optimal? The fact that the OECD HQ is in Paris is not irrelevant (it is now officially on my Index of Paris-based organisations publishing Indexes).

The Great Writer above had a habit (you will have guessed) of acquiring and then dumping wives. This is not a pretext for discussing the liaisons dangereuses of any number of well-known French men and women. Rather, the Great Writer argued that his personal vicissitudes were largely down to the zeitgeist he had lived through, with its utopian over-emphasis on Lennon/Oko peace and love, which no real relationship could ever quite live up to.

He reckoned it was a cultural problem; I want to argue it’s cognitive. There is clearly a link between creativity and melancholia. I don’t want to list here all the poets and artists who have ended up jumping off the bridge (John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, my old friend Nick etc). Self-destruction is only an extreme manifestation of self-deconstruction. Which can clearly be collective as well as individual (perhaps all emotions are really en masse and the notion of a purely personal experience makes no more sense than a private language).

In measuring well-being, the OECD rightly takes account of such external indicators as environment, education, employment, health, and so on. On a less quantitative and yet still empirical level, I want to draw attention to only two phenomena that give a sense of what the OECD is up against, especially in France: toe-sucking and déjà-vu.

The neuro-cognitive logic of foot-fetishism has to do with the brain carrying around a map of the body. But the map of course is not of the same structure as the body: in this rather more compact electro-chemical synaptic form, the feet are stored somewhere in the vicinity of the genitals, so that there is a “neural crossover” from one to the other. Hence a sexualized impression of toes. V. S. Ramachandran derives the whole phenomenon of the “phantom (yet amputated) limb” from this same mix-up, the inability of the brain to overcome its own archetypes.

Do you ever go into a house you know you have never been to before and yet have an eerie sense that it is all very familiar? Maybe you used to live here in a previous life. But more probably, you are experiencing something we generally don’t notice, which is that our information-processing is 2-phase. Haven’t I been here before? Ah yes, of course—just a few nanoseconds ago—when I (my brain) was making an initial reconnaissance and processing the sense data in a relatively unstructured spontaneous way. And now I am re-configuring my preliminary picture and, very briefly, slipping between images, interweaving the present and the recent past (in this sense Plato was right to argue that all knowledge is recollection).

It is this first-phase, a “primal”—preliminary, provisional, but enchanted—state of consciousness (before the more analytic, disenchanted phase kicks in) that I think Albert Camus is invoking when he speaks of flashbacks to a lost paradise and feeling himself at one with trees and seas and silence. It also explains why paradise is always a lost paradise. Happiness is the phantom limb of human consciousness.

Jean-Paul Sartre had a memorable phrase for it (one that I suspect will never catch on quite as much as “Hell is other people”, even though they must be closely related): “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” The brain, like all decent computers, is binary. The difference is that it is more neurotic. We have to keep going back and obsessively checking the data against some previous formulation. In other words, we are inescapably indexical in our behavior (thus the OECD is only doing on a grander scale what we are doing all the time anyway: OECD contains OCD). But some (eg the French) are more indexical than others.

Out of the inevitable disjunction between before and after, the raw and the cooked, the savage and the symbolic, fly up creativity, philosophy, art, but also aching nostalgia and anxiety. Will anything ever “bring salvation back” (as Michael Jackson poignantly wondered)? A faster internet? I doubt it.

Freud blamed our being miserable on (among other things) the Christian concept of heaven. The trouble with heaven is it is fundamentally boring (like Dante’s Paradiso – the Inferno is way more fun). Nothing ever really happens in heaven. I defy even Hugh Hefner not to get tired of his non-stop playmates around the eternal pool. We need a new concept of bliss that is not naively single-phase. As Roland Barthes argued, the concept of jouissance should include pain as well as pleasure; perhaps he could have added that it has to be indexical (why else would the Kama Sutra index so many variations on well-being?).

I am reminded of something my son said to me recently, as we were passing beneath a leafy tree on a sunny day: “Why do we like dappled light so much?” And he had an answer: “It’s because the shadow dramatizes the light. We want light but not too much of it. The same with shade – we don’t want total darkness either.” Even heaven would need an Index on Light.

Useful links

How’s life? 2013 – Measuring well-being

You and me and eudaimonia

Click to download the report
Click to download the report

Be honest, if you had to pick one of Snow White’s Dwarfs to run your country, would Happy be your first choice? I mean, what’s so great about happiness that it gets enshrined in constitutions and even gets its own International Day today (even if it does have to share with Alien Abduction Day according to OECD sources)? When your economy is going to hell in a hand basket, Doc and the technocrats are called in.  And it’s Grumpy and the rest of the dissatisfied who stimulate progress. As Shimon Peres said during his visit here last week, the reason Israelis are so innovative is that they’re always complaining.

But even the glum old OECD is trying to cheer you up, or at least find out if you’re miserable. The title alone of our latest report, OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, will probably bring a smile to your face, but just wait till you see what’s in it. You may think that subjective well-being is easier to recognise than to define, but that’s because you’re not a statistician.  The OECD definition “encompasses three elements: life evaluation (a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it); affect (a person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured with reference to a particular point in time); and eudaimonia (a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning).

We’ll come back to eudaimonia below, but you may be wondering how you can actually measure these things. Since the report consists of guidelines, its main purpose is to help to design surveys – sample size, target population, survey frequency, that kind of thing. But it does provide examples of measures. My favourite is the Andrews and Withey scale that asks how you feel about your life as a whole and you have seven possible options ranging from (no, not “Sleepy” to “Dopey”) “Delighted” to “Terrible”.

Back to Eudaimonia. It’s defined here as “meaningfulness” or “purpose” to life, but Eudaimonia is often translated from the ancient Greek as “happiness”, our subject today. However, for philosophers from Socrates on who used the term, the meaning wasn’t really that implied by the OECD guidelines (if only they’d known!). It referred less to a pleasant feeling than to how you lived your life and whether your actions were moral – well-living and well-doing and not just well-being if you like. Less to do with how you feel than how you act.

So what’s that got to do with an organisation like the OECD? Everything, if you take our slogan “Better policies for better lives” seriously.

Eudaimonia meant taking the morally appropriate course of action in a given situation. A typical example would be how to react to fear, as discussed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics.  Too much fear can lead to cowardice and inaction. Too little fear may mean doing something stupid through over-confidence. Courage is the virtuous reaction in this case. Substitute “crisis” for “fear” and you’re not far from the kinds of choices a government has to make and the kind of advice the OECD gives.

Maybe you think that’s according too much credit to the continuing relevance to modern governance of ancient ideas of virtue. After all, these ideas refer to individual conduct rather than what a government (or company) is judged on – its actions, and whether they increase overall well-being and conform to certain standards.

At the same time, one of the main themes of this year’s OECD Forum is rebuilding trust. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the public puts a high price on individual ethics. Fewer than one in five respondents believes a business or governmental leader will actually tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue, while unethical behaviour is one of the main reasons that banks and financial services remain the least trusted sectors .

Surveys like the Barometer also underline the fact that the people who are most trusted are those the respondents feel are most like them. There is a general impression that what is important to political and business leaders isn’t what counts to most citizens. Measuring Subjective Well-being is part of a broader OECD project, the Better Life Initiative, which tries to change that, at least as regards governments. The Initiative includes Your Better Life Index, an interactive tool that allows you to compare well-being across countries, based on 11 topics covering material living conditions and quality of life, according to how important you think each topic is. Try it, you’ll make a lot of statisticians happy.

Useful links

Better Life Initiative: Measuring Well-Being and Progress

Wikiprogress

Pursuing growth: Enough on its own?

Going for Growth 2013
Going for Growth 2013

Does money make us happy? Phrased a little more subtly, this question has been bugging economists for years. For much of the 20th century, most of them would probably have replied yes. But in the 1970s, doubts began to show, in part because of the work of the American economist Richard Easterlin.

The “Easterlin paradox” appeared to show that as economies developed there was very little change in “self-reported (or “subjective”) well-being” – in other words, even though countries were getting richer, people didn’t seem to be getting happier. Significantly, the appearance of Easterlin’s work in the 1970s coincided with a period of rising environmental concern. Not only did the social benefits of growth come to be questioned but so too did the cost to the planet.

In the years since, all this has fed into an argument that pursuing economic growth – as measured in rising GDP – is not enough in itself. It needs to be balanced against other issues, such as access to health and education, inequality, environmental sustainability and people’s own judgement of the quality of their lives.

If you want an example of how these ideas have now entered the mainstream, look no further than the latest edition of the OECD’s Going for Growth, released today in Moscow. Since it began in 2005, the OECD project has sought to identify ways to promote growth in leading economies, focusing on areas such as employment policies, education and regulation. But as well as offering policy recommendations, this year’s report examines their wider implications – these policies may be good for growth, but are they also good for society and the environment?

These issues are reflected in another OECD project – the Better Life Index. The BLI reflects a shift in thinking on well-being and progress, based on the notion that while economic growth is necessary for development, it’s not sufficient. Accept that, and you also have to accept that, to establish the state of a society, you need to do more than just measure its GDP (which simply represents the total of the goods and services a country produces).

But what should you measure? Here’s where things get complicated. Over the past 20 years or so, several indices have emerged aimed at measuring the progress of societies, nationally and internationally, encompassing a range of measures, such as levels of health, education, inequality, personal happiness, safety, and so on. Are such indices useful? Debate rages. Advocates say they present a balanced, nuanced picture; critics say they’re too subjective, and depend too much on what researchers decide is important and not important. By contrast, they argue, at least GDP is a hard, objective number.

Those critics may feel buoyed by what looks to be a bit of an academic backlash to Easterlin’s work: “The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are,” crowed one critic;  “Can We Kill The Easterlin Paradox Now Please: It’s Wrong,” added another. Such rejoicing may be premature: There’s a lot of honest difference of opinion among academics over how best to research this area, which is generating a great deal of diverse work. As of now, the consensus seems to be that, once a society reaches a certain level of development, more money doesn’t add up to much more happiness.

Still, it is interesting to see how – for all its flaws – many of us can’t help but link GDP (and related numbers like GNP and GNI) to wider issues. Indeed, we may have reasonable grounds for doing so: As the German researchers Jan Delhey and Christian Kroll reported last year, “for an economic indicator never intended to assess national well-being, the GDP is surprisingly successful in predicting a population’s subjective well-being.”

But, interestingly, the two researchers did find an indicator they liked even more: “One measure actually does a better job: the OECD’s Better Life Index which is particularly effective when it comes to predicting subjective well-being in the richest OECD countries.”

Useful Links

OECD Better Life Index Blog

OECD and the G20

Who cares what you think?

Today’s post is from Anthony Gooch, Director of the OECD Public Affairs and Communication Directorate, and joint project leader of the OECD Better Life Initiative

Most people would agree that (a) there is more to life than money; (b) there is more to progress than GDP growth; and (c) there is more to democracy than voting. But how can citizens make their voices heard and how can policy makers know if they’re addressing the issues that really matter?

The OECD Better Life Initiative was launched a year ago to address these concerns. The Initiative builds on a decade of international reflection on measuring the progress of societies. Its two principal elements are Your Better Life Index (BLI), an online tool that enables citizens to visualize well-being in OECD countries according to what is important to them; and How’s Life?, a report bringing together for the first time internationally comparable measures of well-being in line with recommendations in the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission report.

Users of Your Better Life Index “weigh” 11 topics that contribute to well-being – community, education, environment, governance, health, housing, income, jobs, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance – to generate their own Index. An overall description of the quality of life in each country is also provided, including how it performs across the 20 individual indicators that make up the 11 topics. Freely-accessible OECD reports and other sources of information are provided to assist those who want to learn more.

Since its launch last May, the Index has received nearly one million visits from practically every country on the planet and has been referenced internationally as a model for presenting material on measuring well-being. Feedback from users has enabled the OECD to draw initial conclusions on what is driving well-being. Users consistently rank “life satisfaction”, “education” and “health” the most highly, regardless of their country of origin, suggesting that no matter where we live, we worry and care about the same things.

There is also little difference between the sexes, or between generations, although younger people (15-34) put greater emphasis on “work-life balance,” “income” and “jobs”, whereas people over 65 prioritise “health” and “the environment.”  Overall, “community,” “income” and “governance” rank far lower relatively.

Your Better Life Index will be widening its coverage as it enters its second year. The geographical range will be extended to include Brazil and Russia, bringing the total number of countries covered to 36. The Index is also widening its language coverage, with a full French version which we hope will be the first of a string of versions in different languages. This will be a critical element for expanding the global user community, exponentially increasing the feedback received through completed indexes.

In fact, each year Your Better Life Index will be enriched with more factors important for measuring well-being. In response to user findings, new indicators have been added in 2012 to strengthen the “education”, “jobs”, “environment” and “housing” dimensions. Users will also be able to compile their index taking account of degrees of equality between men and women across the topics. Why is that, for example, that men earn more and work more than women, but women live longer, are often better educated and often report greater overall happiness with life? Similarly, users will be able to see other inequalities, for example, whether their income level affects how healthy they feel or how likely they are to vote.

The capacity of Your Better Life Index to make a difference in how policies are developed   depends on participation. With this in mind, enhancing the user experience to encourage participation and to make feedback more immediate are emphasized. Users will now be able to compare themselves directly with others based on location, gender and age. Comments and suggestions are more than welcome. Already, as a result of user feedback, we have added an embed feature which enables journalists, bloggers and others to capture their BLI and place it directly onto web sites and blogs.

Your Better Life Index provides an innovative way of empowering and educating everyone who cares about building a stronger, cleaner and fairer world. For the public this means being better informed about policies and their effects on well-being. For policy-makers, this means a better understanding of citizen priorities in order to shape better policies. For the OECD, this means making recommendations that more accurately reflect people’s concerns.

Our challenge is to encourage more public engagement and dialogue in order to make a more meaningful impact on what policies are needed. It is a voyage of discovery and a work in progress.

Useful links

Create Your Better Life Index