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Science Talk

If You're Happy, How You Know It

Social scientist Roly Russell, of the Sandhill Institute in British Columbia, talked with Scientific American's Mark Fischetti at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science about potentially better measures than GDP of a nation's well-being

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Hi, Steve Mirsky here with a short episode of Science Talk. Scientific American's Mark Fischetti ventured to Vancouver this past weekend for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While there he spoke with Roly Russell, a social scientist at the Sandhill Institute in Grand Forks, British Columbia. Russell presented new research making the case that there are other indicators besides gross domestic product that are better markers for how well people are doing in their pursuit of happiness. Here's Mark.

Fischetti:          So, we're at AAAS with Roly Russell, and we're talking about life satisfaction, happiness really, amongst nations; and tell us a bit about the recent research and what sort of the major factors are to people's life satisfaction.

Russell:          All right. Well, I guess we know that there are a lot of different drivers of life satisfaction and happiness at a, kind of, personal scale but then when we scale up, a lot of this get lost and we seem to rely more along the lines of financial capital as a representation of general well-being. And our work is to kind of focus on trying to demonstrate what relative role others forms of capital, like human and social capital or natural capital, play in determining our well-being.

Fischetti:          So, right and GDP in terms of nations is being, kind of, used as a proxy for how well-off people or think they are, tell us what you found about that?

Russell:          Yeah, so GDP is kind of the most commonly used indicator of progress, let's say, of a nation or development. And so we were showing that the results of our analysis were showing that things like natural capital and social and human capital account for greater, they explain more of global variation in well-being than financial capital. So things like GDP actually don't do this good of a job as natural capital or social and human capital in explaining in our well-being.

Fischetti:          So if I'm correct, you had a study that came out with the leading indicators—those three categories that you just mentioned—and there were some, sort of, relative percentages of how much influence each of those, natural, human and financial capital, weigh-in on our happiness so maybe you could give us the results.

Russell:          Yeah, so we pooled those different factors and, so a mix of financial capital explained about 52 percent of the variation in well-being whereas social and human capital explained more like 70 percent—a little bit more than 70 percent—and natural capital explained 67 percent.

Fischetti:          And the winner was—which country?

Russell:          Costa Rica came out on top in terms of well—Costa Rica came on top in terms of the happiest people, essentially.

Fischetti:          And any insight into why that was? What the leading factor, couple of factors were?

Russell:          I guess instead of an insight into why that was, it's interesting to note that they have attained that high level of satisfaction without a high level of GDP, which implies that even if GDP is a useful indicator, and we know it is, it's not necessary for a high national well being; and so, presumably they have a strong system of, strong social and human capital and strong natural capital which helps dominate that financial-built capital.

Fischetti:          And I think you made that point about strong social support network. Could you explain what that is and how much a factor it is in Costa Rica or in general in this area?

Russell:          Yeah, so if we ask people on a national average essentially, if we ask you, do you feel like you have a social support network? And then just the average of the kind of a portion of people say "yes" to that question actually does a quite a good job as well of predicting our general well-being or life satisfaction.

Fischetti:          And so tell us how we, you know, a country, agovernment or maybe scientists can make use of that information. Is there some sort of message about how we measure or what we should take from the measurements that we've, kind of, been using all along?

Russell:          Ah, I guess we're living in a pretty data-rich world these days, and I think we can move beyond the naïve reliance on GDP as the sole metric of success and do a better job of trying to incorporate some of those social and natural factors in recognizing that we know those are important for our general well-being.

Fischetti:          So, is that part of, I am curious about why GDP has been the de facto, you know, metric; was it difficult or too hard to get good measurements of these other areas, and now we've got better numbers, so, let's like stop relying on GDP in terms of, sort of, influencing policy decisions?

Russell:          Ah, I think it's a bit of a number of things, as you would expect, but I guess, I think of it as, kind of, an unbalanced imperfection in terms of—we can assess GDP quite cleanly, and we know that our numbers are reasonably good estimates even though the metric itself is not that good at capturing what we want it to capture, but it does a good job and it's clean at what we want it to do; whereas things like natural capital and social capital, as you would expect, are really difficult to ascertain at any kind of solid level. So we have at one end of the spectrum, financial capital which is easy to count and so we're not too imperfect with that; but then something like natural or social capital, it's really messy and it's hard to count and it's hard to get good numbers that we know mean something. So on that end of the spectrum there's a lot of imperfection there in terms of what we're trying to ascertain.

Fischetti:          So, very interesting and my last question is: So where does the U.S. stand on these three factors?

Russell:          Yeah, well I mean that's the issue with GDP is, it's imperfect in capturing things like, natural-resource depletion does not get counted in something like GDP, and that's been known for a long time. And so the U.S. is very high on the GDP scale, essentially in the financial and built capital, and fairly high on the kind of general well-being scale as well. And yet we know that, that high scoring on the financial capital is also missing—it's not fully capturing a lot of the aspects of natural capital, for example, which might be being depleted at the expense or financial capital is increasing at the expense of natural capital, essentially. And so I don't have the numbers yet in terms of where the U.S. will fall on other three, but stay tuned.

Fischetti:          Right, so more to come, and when we do learn more do you think there's any, sort of, general policy areas, where we might start to take a different view?

Russell:          Ah, I think, yes. I think it's already starting to happen in terms of, like, the Stiglitz Commission, a prominent economist who was brought on with some others to look at how we actually measure national well-being and gauge our success. And I think it's starting to be recognized that we need to expand into social forms of capital, and I think there are contribution that isn't yet fully, kind of, worked in is that natural capital is also really significant, and we have to pay more attention to that.

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