• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 21st December, 2009

California? Unhappy? Ho, ho, ho!

UK Professor of Economics Andrew Oswald had his name in a newspaper in pretty much every US state, last week, thanks to syndication of some highly technical qualitative analysis published in the journal Science.The Los Angeles Times boiled down one reading of his and Stephen Wu’s findings to a skeptical And the happiest state is …Louisiana? looking askance at a reckoning that relegated California to 46th place out of the 51 on the sliding scale. They suggested that only New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Connecticut and bottom-placed New York had a more dissatisfied population.The LA Times pursued Andrew Oswald home to the UK University of Warwick for an explanation: "California does poorly because of its congestion, high property prices, and in parts, its air quality,” he said. “It does well on sunshine hours, of course, but not well enough to outweigh other things like the long commutes.“It may also be,” he added – wryly by the sound of it, “that Californians spend a lot of time comparing themselves with the rich citizens around them – usually a recipe for unhappiness."All of this rather neglects Oswald and Wu’s scientific purpose, which was to provide new insight into a problem invariably encountered in child and family well-being and happiness research: the elusiveness of any objective, universal measures.In the case of their US study, they believe they succeeded in reconciling qualitative data from their random sample of life satisfaction among 1.3 million citizens with an older study that considered quantifiable indicators for each state, such as rainfall, seaboard, public land, visits to parks, hazardous waste sites, commute time, crime, air quality, teacher-student ratios, local taxes, cost of living and other environmental factors. When they compared the two tables, they found a close correlation between how happy people said they were and the estimated quality of life in their state.So their research may stand as a rare “external validation” of people's sense of well-being. They are hoping it will have wider economic and clinical value. As E! Science News explained, attempts to attribute objective validity to self assessment have tended to correlate reported levels of happiness with clinical signs such as blood pressure or cortisol levels. But in that situation one cannot know for sure whether the clinical signs are aspects of cause or effect. The parallel data set Oswald and Wu relied on emerged from work by Marshall School of Business researcher Stuart Gabriel and others. It was published in 2003, but used information gathered between 1981 and 1990 for an exercise designed to measure quality of life trends in response to changes in the background factors it listed.So Louisiana's top ranking was based on a survey that long preceded Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, or any of the more recent anxieties associated with climate change, public finances or property values. "The beauty of our statistical method is that we are able to look below the surface of American life – to identify the deep patterns in people's underlying happiness from Alabama to Wyoming," Oswald said in a news release."The state-by-state pattern seems interesting in itself. But it also matters scientifically. We wanted to study whether people's feelings of satisfaction with their own lives are reliable, that is, whether they match up to the reality – of sunshine hours, congestion, air quality, etc – in their own state. And they do match. “When human beings give you an answer on a numerical scale about how satisfied they are with their lives, it is best to pay attention. Their answers are reliable. This suggests that life-satisfaction survey data might be very useful for governments to use in the design of economic and social policies."As for the headline-catching league table, he was quoted as saying:"We’ve been asked a lot whether we expected that states like New York and California would do so badly in the happiness ranking. Having visited and lived in various parts of the US, I'm only a little surprised. “Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in. The problem is that if too many individuals think that way, they move, and the resulting congestion and house prices make it a non-fulfilling prophecy. In a way, it’s like the stock market. “Bargains in life are usually found outside the spotlight.”See: Oswald A J and Wu S, “Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-Being: Evidence from the U.S.A.” Science published online December 17, 2009, Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1180606For more about their measures, see the supporting online material.• Andrew Oswald's collaboration with Stephen Wu at Hamilton College, New York, was made possible by a UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Professorial Fellowship. The awards are intended to push back the frontiers of social science by allowing the leading UK scholars the time and opportunity to carry out cutting edge research.

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