Questioning our poverty prejudices

by David Week on 28 September 2010


Examining our own preconceptions

MJ, in a comment here, says:

It may be that they actually are happier than city slickers in Sydney, but your experiences do not amount to very much evidence.

It’s true that my experience does not amount to evidence, but my experience did lead me to start looking very carefully at my culturally-given prejudices about what factors lead to a state emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction. There is always a danger in development that we just project on our counterparts our own values and social conditioning, and thereby conclude that (surprise, surprise) we rank more highly than they do in achieving our ends, because they are not aiming to achieve our ends.

There’s a risk that we present and think of poor people as miserable, because the equations wealth = happiness and poverty = misery are important economic and social drivers in our culture, economy, and way of life.

Global studies of happiness and well-being

Beyond my personal experience, here are some global studies which take a deeper look:

1  Happy Planet Index

On this index:

  • Costa Rica ranks… 1
  • Australia… 102
  • the United States… 114

Using the HPI, “development” does not correlate with “happiness” at all well.

2  Satisfaction with Life Index

Top five places are held by:

  • Japan
  • Yemen
  • Portugal
  • Sri Lanka
  • Tajikistan

Again: not a good correlation.

3  The Gallup World Poll

Some interesting insights:

HIV prevalence in Africa has little effect on Africans’ life or health satisfaction; the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is the same as the fraction of Britons and higher than the fraction of Americans. The US ranks 81st out of 115 countries in the fraction of people who have confidence in their healthcare system, and has a lower score than countries such as India, Iran, Malawi, or Sierra Leone.

This finding has a direct bearing on what I think is key development question.

What is more important to human being:

  • to be healthy
  • to be satisfied by one’s health?

What if the first makes you live longer, but the second puts you in a good mood every day? Standard development theory and practice presume that the first is more important. But personally, I find the latter to be extremely important in all areas of life: not just health, but community, finance, relationships, and work.

4  Legatum Prosperity Index

One of those indices that ranks Scandinavia tops… which is not surprising given what it measures.

5  Gross National Happiness

I find this one a bit suspicious, as it was invented in Bhutan, and ranks Bhutan so highly. I think this would be interesting too look as a possible example of an ethnocentric measure different to our own. In other words, by constructing this measure according to their own values, have the Bhutanese measured nothing more than alignment with their own values?

I like Bryan Caplan’s suggestion (quoted by Bill Easterly) that:

Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.

6  World Values Survey

Interesting findings:

  • The happiest people in the world live in Nigeria: again, not the richest, safest or healthiest country in the world. Following Nigeria: Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico.
  • “Factors that make people happy may vary from one country to the next with personal success and self-expression being seen as the most important in the US, while in Japan, fulfilling the expectations of family and society is valued more highly.”
  • Researchers described the desire for material goods as “a happiness suppressant”.

You can see an remarkable set of graphs from the data here. This diagram shows an attempt to cluster the values systems of different countries:

The key point here is: We can’t measure “development” by a single set of values, if different cultures have different values, different ideas of what constitutes “the good life”.

7  Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index

I’m using Gallup’s “Daily Tracker” to track my own mood. Gallup distinguishes mood from life satisfaction, finding that beyond a certain income, satisfaction improves, but mood doesn’t. Personally, I find mood more important. Who cares if you think your life is successful, but you feel bad every day?

Interesting insights:

Recent research has begun to distinguish two aspects of subjective well-being. Emotional well-being refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience—the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant. Life evaluation refers to the thoughts that people have about their life when they think about it… We find that emotional well-being (measured by questions about emotional experiences yesterday) and life evaluation (measured by Cantril’s Self-Anchoring Scale) have different correlates.

Income and education are more closely related to life evaluation, but health, care giving, loneliness, and smoking are relatively stronger predictors of daily emotions. [Emphasis mine.]

Maybe aid should focus more on reducing cigarette use, and less on education? 🙂

Even where there is strong correlation between income and life satisfaction (i.e. what we think about our lives, rather than how we feel day to day), there are some very interesting outliers. For instance, consider this graph:

We might note the general trend to the upper right, and note with satisfaction how this supports our ingrained belief that wealth = happiness. But much more interesting is to ask what the countries in the top left quadrant are doing, because clearly by bucking the trend, they are getting:

  • more life satisfaction
  • for less economic activity
  • while generating smaller environmental impacts.

Knowing how to do that is worth knowing.

In sum

  • We need to be careful to distinguish between our own cultural values and conditioning, and the subjective experience and lifeworld of others.
  • “Happiness” (hate the term) and well-being researchers have constructed some interesting distinctions, which are helpful in sorting out what we mean when people have “better lives”. Among these is the distinction between “life evaluation” and “emotional well-being.” You can think your life is great, but feel like shit!
  • Prima facie, different indicators give different country rankings, depending on their construction. We need to look carefully at their construction in order to understand what, exactly, is being measured. The point is that human well-being is a complicated matter, and the simplistic equation poverty = misery is unlikely to hold.
  • Even is where the data supports our cultural prejudices, we would do well to look at the outliers (the exceptions that “prove”—i.e. test—our assumptions), rather than look self-satisfied at an overall statistical trend that supports those prejudices.

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