Every year, an organisation called Sustainable Development Solutions Network brings out a UN-sponsored publication called World Happiness Report. The most recent came out in March this year, and Finland emerged as the world’s happiest country for four years in a row. India was ranked 139, improving its rank by one spot.
A more interesting question is how good are we at measuring happiness? In Behavioural Economics: A Very Short Introduction, Michelle Baddeley writes, “One problem with measuring happiness and well-being is that our perceptions of our own happiness are dependent on context… Most measures of happiness and well-being are based on surveys—and self-reported levels of happiness can be like a snapshot taken at an unlikely moment. Questions asked before we decide how happy we are (or not) can be used as priming questions. For example, students’ self-reported happiness can be manipulated by asking them to think about recent events. In one set of experiments students were asked priming questions such as ‘Did you have a date last night?’ ‘Did it go well?’—these questions were designed to prime students to feel particular emotions, depending on how they had got on the previous night. The students’ self-reported happiness changed according to the ordering of the questions. Students asked to state how happy they were after being asked questions about how things went last night reported different happiness levels. If they had had a miserable night before, then they recorded much lower levels of happiness. If they had had a good night, then they recorded relatively high levels of happiness. On the other hand, students’ stated happiness levels were affected less by last night’s events if they were asked about their happiness before they were asked questions about how they got on the previous night. Prompts to remember recent events were changing students’ perceptions of their own happiness. So, whilst policy-makers should worry more about broader definitions of well-being, using happiness surveys is problematic because our self-reported happiness levels can be distorted by ephemeral factors.”
What do you think is a good way to measure happiness? Do you think wearables will change the whole game going forward by constantly measuring metrics that correlate with high levels of happiness? Let us know.
In this issue
- Why regulating Big Tech is a tough problem
- How to think about mental health during the pandemic
- The difference between reading and writing
Why regulating Big Tech is a tough problem
Big Tech and monopolies are in the news in many parts of the world, and India is no exception. Recently, Mint reported that Nandan Nilekani “will join the Central Government panel as an advisor, along with eight other members, to accelerate the development of an open network for digital commerce (ONDC), designed to curb digital monopolies.”
Dealing with Big Tech is a hard problem. In a recent column in WSJ, Greg Ip captures the difficulty thus: “Judged only by consumer welfare, this doesn’t seem to present a problem: their products are cheap or free, and extremely popular. Judged by concentrations of power, it’s problematic: their control of essential platforms leave individual merchants, app developers, content providers and users next to no bargaining power since they have so few alternatives. Barriers to entry are high to insurmountable for potential competitors. They determine what artistic and political content billions of users share and see.”
What makes it a difficult problem is that while we worry about too much concentration of power in the hands of corporations, there is also the danger of too much concentration of power in the hands of regulators. Ip points out, “In 2018, the Department of Justice tried, unsuccessfully, to stop AT&T Inc. from acquiring Time Warner Inc., in a move many saw as motivated by then President Donald Trump’s personal animosity toward CNN, a unit of Time Warner.”
Ip’s conclusion is interesting. “For all its flaws, antitrust governed by the consumer welfare standard is less at risk of politicization than beliefs about what’s good or bad for democracy.”
How to think about mental health during the pandemic
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine it’s 2019, and try answering the question ‘How would a severe pandemic impact your mental health?’ There is a good chance that we would have imagined it to be far worse than how it actually turned out to be.
In The Atlantic, psychologists Lara Aknin, Jamil Zaki, and Elizabeth Dunn write, “Human beings possess what some researchers call a psychological immune system, a host of cognitive abilities that enable us to make the best of even the worst situation. For example, after breaking up with a romantic partner, people may focus on the ex’s annoying habits or relish their newfound free time.
“The pandemic has been a test of the global psychological immune system, which appears more robust than we would have guessed. When familiar sources of enjoyment evaporated in the spring of 2020, people got creative. They participated in drive-by birthday parties, mutual-assistance groups, virtual cocktail evenings with old friends, and nightly cheers for health-care workers. Some people got really good at baking. Many found a way to reweave their social tapestry. Indeed, across multiple large data sets, levels of loneliness showed only a modest increase, with 13.8 percent of adults in the US reporting always or often feeling lonely in April 2020, compared with 11 percent in spring 2018.”
They also caution us against brushing off its negative impacts. They write, “But these broad trends and averages shouldn’t erase the real struggles—immense pain, overwhelming loss, financial hardships—that so many people have faced over the past 17 months. For example, that 2.8 percent increase in the number of Americans reporting loneliness last spring represents 7 million people.”
The difference between reading and writing
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