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The Best Country in the World
(Hint:  It Isn't the USA)


From the LA Times, 11/8/01:

So, This Is Heaven: Norway

A U.N. report named it the top place to live. And the once poor nation is dedicated to spreading its now substantial wealth.


OSLO — Imagine a world so shielded from modern dangers that children accept candy from strangers.

Think about a place where lifelong financial security is guaranteed, no matter how many layoffs, stock market crashes or catastrophic illnesses come your way.

Consider the psychological well-being of belonging to a country where no one is homeless or hungry, where women and men are equal, where a pristine environment is reverentially protected and where sharing the wealth with the world's less fortunate is a moral obligation. Norway is not utopia—after all, it does suffer the occasional incursions of the cruel outside world. But most Norwegians admit that in terms of uplifting ideals and earthly comforts, life in this country is as good as it gets.

And this year's U.N. Human Development Report confirms that: It ranks Norway the No. 1 place in the world to live, based on a cocktail of indicators about health, wealth and social outlook.

Of course, the measurements don't take into account the fact that darkness falls by 3 p.m. half the year and tax rates swallow up to 60% of your income. Also escaping the statisticians' notice are new social strains created by a sudden influx of immigrants into a long-homogenous nation.

But the glowing report card has filled many of the 4.5 million people holding passports to this place at the top of the world with newfound pride and a sense of validation that sharing and caring aren't extinct.

And although there is much muttering over high taxes, many Norwegians contend that they should be giving even more of their money to solve the rest of the world's problems.

"Our moral obligation to share the wealth increases with the amount of our wealth," says International Development Minister Anne Kristin Sydnes, noting that the North Sea oil that is the primary source of Norway's prosperity should be viewed as a global resource.

Norway's North Sea tracts have proved to be a bountiful source of the precious commodity, turning this country once dependent on fishing and farming into the No. 2 oil exporter in the world. Even with fluctuating oil prices, Norway has skillfully managed the state-owned industry and amassed a public fund of $60 billion.

"We could easily give five times as much as we do in foreign assistance," argues Ingebrigt Steen Jensen, a media magnate who insists that most Norwegian entrepreneurs hold global welfare above personal enrichment. "We have this huge cake, but we can't eat it all, so isn't it better to share it with this room full of hungry people than to put it in the freezer for later?"

Like many Scandinavians, Jensen recoils at what he calls the excesses of American life, from the prevalence of handguns and poor people to the death penalty and class distinctions that deprive some urban children of equality in education.

"This probably looks something close to a communist regime," he says of his own country's penchant for social leveling. "But here even the police are unarmed."

Although crime does exist—there are about 50 killings a year and thousands of petty thefts—Norwegians enjoy a sense of personal security unimaginable to Americans. Most people leave their homes unlocked, and no one hesitates to stop and help a motorist in trouble.

Norway also is one of the few countries that donates millions more in foreign aid than the U.N. target of 0.7% of a nation's gross domestic product.

Jan Erik Hansen, cultural editor for the influential daily newspaper Aftenposten, believes Norwegians also are committed to their outsize role in foreign development because it elevates an otherwise powerless country into the ranks of global players.

"Norway is a very small country—something we don't like to recognize, and we don't have to when we occupy a fair number of important international positions," Hansen says.

He contends that the nearly 1% of GDP spent each year to fight global poverty and enhance peace buys his nation both clout and respectability. Oslo often plays a mediating role in foreign conflicts, from efforts to reconcile North and South Korea to the now-foundering Middle East peace process.

Although taxpayers have long supported Norway's international generosity, last month's parliamentary elections reflected some dismay with the way the Labor-led government has handled finances in the oil boom times. After the Labor Party posted its worst showing since 1924 on the day before the Sept. 11 attacks, a conservative-led coalition came to power under Christian Democratic leader Kjell Magne Bondevik with a mandate to lower taxes and tap the oil fund to overcome shortages in the social welfare system.

But social analysts say Norwegians are unlikely to cut back on foreign aid, especially following the U.S. attacks, seen by some as an extreme form of revenge for perceived social injustice. And even the lavish domestic spending on cradle-to-grave services is unlikely to be abandoned, because the benefits are tangible.

"In a welfare state, which is what we have built here, no matter who your parents are you have the right to an education or hospital care as good as anyone else's," says Anne Lise Ryel, deputy justice minister. "Opportunities don't depend on social class, and no one wants to change that."

This is a society firmly grounded in egalitarian values, and Norway's public schools are of such quality that even the royal family attends to the pandemic informality—the king is addressed simply as Harald and the prime minister as Kjell Magne.

Choices for Women

One factor that helped lift Norway to the top life-quality rung was its success in achieving gender equality. Although there are no official quotas, as there are in neighboring Sweden, women in Norway occupy half the Cabinet and parliament seats and fill more than 40% of judicial and academic posts.

"We place a very high value on both work and having a family and believe a woman should never have to choose one or the other. Most women with children continue to work in Norway, not because they have to but because they want to," Ryel says.

Three-year maternity leaves, broad part-time opportunities and creative application of telecommuting help keep women in the work force. So do the generous benefits for both men and women of eight weeks' vacation, liberal sick leave and day care that is reliable and inexpensive.

At the office, there is a continuous supply of coffee and pastries, and workaholics are objects of pity among their peers.

But the very success of Norway's social services is presenting the country with new problems. Good medical care for every citizen has raised life expectancy to one of the world's highest levels at 78.4 years, placing new demands on the health-care system as the population ages. State assistance to single mothers is so generous that there is no need for a father's income. Half the children here are now born out of wedlock.

And Norway's commitment to providing education, libraries, day care and government services of uniform quality across a territory as long as the U.S. West Coast eats up more of the abundant resources with each year, since public investment in thinly populated regions is just as expensive as in urban centers.

Philosophy professor Arne Naess complains that there is also something lacking in a country that is so self-sufficient.

"People don't talk to each other here. Everyone walks around alone and preoccupied," says the professor, who will soon turn 90. "There was more of a sense of togetherness after the war and until the 1960s, when we got all this oil money."

Apparently, Norwegians have more of an affinity with nature than with other Norwegians. They feel a unique bond with the sea, forest and mountains despite the severe winters, Naess says. "I don't know any other country where there is this intense connection with nature."

A land of striking beauty, with its coastal tracery of fiords and snowcapped mountains, Norway has remained untouched by pollution as it has evolved from a fishing and farming society into high-tech and white-collar business without an intervening phase of heavy industry. To take advantage of the abundant natural splendor, almost every family has at least one weekend home in the mountains or on the sea.

Environmental quality was among the lifestyle indicators evaluated in the U.N. development rankings, in which the United States placed sixth among the 162 countries examined. Per capita GDP is highest in the United States, at $31,872 compared with Norway's $28,433. But outright wealth in the U.S. was superseded by a less effective war on poverty at home and abroad, shorter life expectancy and higher crime rates.

As Norwegians learn to settle into a lifestyle that is the rest of the world's envy, purveyors of pampering and self-improvement are enjoying boom times despite a traditional abhorrence of flaunting money. Oslo, with only 500,000 people, now has four restaurants with Michelin stars, and sales of home spas have risen 20% in each of the past few years.

For the most part, however, Norwegians don't consider fine dining or a personal sauna to be luxurious indulgences.

"There is a strong focus on being healthy and not letting yourself get overweight," says Per Lome, director of the Tylo sauna and steam-bath franchise here. He estimates that 60% of new homes and country cottages are now equipped with home spas.

More problematic for Norwegians are the flashy cars and ever-bigger boats showing up on the streets and shoreline as some Norwegians abandon modest traditions.

"There's definitely a trend toward bigger and bigger boats," says Morton Taroy of the Oslo Boat Center. "It's the same with Ferrari sales. Ten years ago, you wouldn't be able to drive around in a car like that because it would be seen as showing off. Nowadays you see them everywhere. It's the difference between old money and new money."

Because Norway's oil wealth is managed by the government with an eye to benefiting future generations as well as today's, the $7,000 per capita income from the industry doesn't go directly into each Norwegian's pocket but into a fund. Still, the huge budget surpluses provided by the oil money allow the state to fully finance what in most countries are personal expenses, such as saving for retirement or a child's college education.

Statistics Norway, the national profiling agency, reports that the average Norwegian spends more than 26% of his or her income on leisure-time comforts. And in sharp contrast with other countries in densely populated Europe, 80% of the households are single-family homes or spacious apartments in small-unit clusters.

Many Retain Frugality

Having been among the poorest of Europeans for the first half of the 20th century, many Norwegians retain a frugality bred by that hardship.

"Most people are still very cost-conscious," says Annelise Sorli, a young mother and travel agent. "More than a million Norwegians travel each year on charter holidays, and the cheaper destinations, like Turkey and Bulgaria, are always the first to sell out."

The opportunities most Norwegians have to indulge their wanderlust is helping them learn to appreciate the advantages they have long taken for granted, Sorli says.

"We live in a very safe country. We don't have to worry about something happening to our children when we are at work or what will happen to us when we get older," she says. "But it's human nature to look at what could be better. Sometimes it's good to go abroad and be reminded of how much we already have."

But that recognition of good fortune is rare despite Norwegians' relatively recent experience on the other end of the affluence spectrum.

At Jensen's Dinamo Media Agency, in an elegant 19th century villa overlooking Oslo Fiord, the employee-owners work in jeans and sweaters and gather for brainstorming sessions over pizza. They work flexible hours, strive for Fridays free of e-mail and encourage each other to get home by 5 p.m.

"The one thing people say they don't have enough of is time—money and material goods are way down the list of what people want," says Jensen, himself bemused by the elusive commodity. "My grandfather worked 68 hours a week, cut his own wood, had no modern conveniences and still managed to play in the local band. I work 37 hours, I have every appliance and convenience, I don't even accompany my children to the barber, yet I feel like I don't have any time."

Williams was recently on assignment in Oslo.

The pursuit of happiness
From the NY Times:

October 4, 2005

A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom


What is happiness? In the United States and in many other industrialized countries, it is often equated with money.

Economists measure consumer confidence on the assumption that the resulting figure says something about progress and public welfare. The gross domestic product, or G.D.P., is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation.

But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a different idea.

In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals.

Now Bhutan's example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.

Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors.

The goal, according to many involved in this effort, is in part to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself.

The founding fathers, said John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as a balance of individual and community interests. "The Enlightenment theory of happiness was an expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of the people," Mr. Saul said. And, he added, this could not be further from "the 20th-century idea that you should smile because you're at Disneyland."

Mr. Saul was one of about 400 people from more than a dozen countries who gathered recently to consider new ways to define and assess prosperity.

The meeting, held at St. Francis Xavier University in northern Nova Scotia, was a mix of soft ideals and hard-nosed number crunching. Many participants insisted that the focus on commerce and consumption that dominated the 20th century need not be the norm in the 21st century.

Among the attendees were three dozen representatives from Bhutan -- teachers, monks, government officials and others -- who came to promote what the Switzerland-size country has learned about building a fulfilled, contented society.

While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world's lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years. The country, which is preparing to shift to a constitution and an elected government, requires that at least 60 percent of its lands remain forested, welcomes a limited stream of wealthy tourists and exports hydropower to India.

"We have to think of human well-being in broader terms," said Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's home minister and ex-prime minister. "Material well-being is only one component. That doesn't ensure that you're at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other."

It is a concept grounded in Buddhist doctrine, and even a decade ago it might have been dismissed by most economists and international policy experts as naïve idealism.

Indeed, America's brief flirtation with a similar concept, encapsulated in E. F. Schumacher's 1973 bestseller "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered," ended abruptly with the huge and continuing burst of consumer-driven economic growth that exploded first in industrialized countries and has been spreading in fast-growing developing countries like China.

Yet many experts say it was this very explosion of affluence that eventually led social scientists to realize that economic growth is not always synonymous with progress.

In the early stages of a climb out of poverty, for a household or a country, incomes and contentment grow in lockstep. But various studies show that beyond certain thresholds, roughly as annual per capita income passes $10,000 or $20,000, happiness does not keep up.

And some countries, studies found, were happier than they should be. In the World Values Survey, a project under way since 1995, Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, found that Latin American countries, for example, registered far more subjective happiness than their economic status would suggest.

In contrast, countries that had experienced communist rule were unhappier than noncommunist countries with similar household incomes -- even long after communism had collapsed.

"Some types of societies clearly do a much better job of enhancing their people's sense of happiness and well-being than other ones even apart from the somewhat obvious fact that it's better to be rich than to be poor," Dr. Inglehart said.

Even more striking, beyond a certain threshold of wealth people appear to redefine happiness, studies suggest, focusing on their relative position in society instead of their material status.

Nothing defines this shift better than a 1998 survey of 257 students, faculty and staff members at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the study, the researchers, Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, gave the subjects a choice of earning $50,000 a year in a world where the average salary was $25,000 or $100,000 a year where the average was $200,000.

About 50 percent of the participants, the researchers found, chose the first option, preferring to be half as prosperous but richer than their neighbors.

Such findings have contributed to the new effort to broaden the way countries and individuals gauge the quality of life -- the subject of the Nova Scotia conference.

But researchers have been hard pressed to develop measuring techniques that can capture this broader concept of well-being.

One approach is to study how individuals perceive the daily flow of their lives, having them keep diary-like charts reflecting how various activities, from paying bills to playing softball, make them feel.

A research team at Princeton is working with the Bureau of Labor Statistics to incorporate this kind of charting into its new "time use" survey, which began last year and is given to 4,000 Americans each month.

"The idea is to start with life as we experience it and then try to understand what helps people feel fulfilled and create conditions that generate that," said Dr. Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist working on the survey.

For example, he said, subjecting students to more testing in order to make them more competitive may equip them to succeed in the American quest for ever more income. But that benefit would have to be balanced against the problems that come with the increased stress imposed by additional testing.

"We should not be hoping to construct a utopia," Professor Krueger said. "What we should be talking about is piecemeal movement in the direction of things that make for a better life."

Another strategy is to track trends that can affect a community's well-being by mining existing statistics from censuses, surveys and government agencies that track health, the environment, the economy and other societal barometers.

The resulting scores can be charted in parallel to see how various indicators either complement or impede each other.

In March, Britain said it would begin developing such an "index of well-being," taking into account not only income but mental illness, civility, access to parks and crime rates.

In June, British officials released their first effort along those lines, a summary of "sustainable development indicators" intended to be a snapshot of social and environmental indicators like crime, traffic, pollution and recycling levels.

"What we do in one area of our lives can have an impact on many others, so joined-up thinking and action across central and local government is crucial," said Elliot Morley, Britain's environment minister.

In Canada, Hans Messinger, the director of industry measures and analysis for Statistics Canada, has been working informally with about 20 other economists and social scientists to develop that country's first national index of well-being.

Mr. Messinger is the person who, every month, takes the pulse of his country's economy, sifting streams of data about cash flow to generate the figure called gross domestic product. But for nearly a decade, he has been searching for a better way of measuring the quality of life.

"A sound economy is not an end to itself, but should serve a purpose, to improve society," Mr. Messinger said.

The new well-being index, Mr. Messinger said, will never replace the G.D.P. For one thing, economic activity, affected by weather, labor strikes and other factors, changes far more rapidly than other indicators of happiness.

But understanding what fosters well-being, he said, can help policy makers decide how to shape legislation or regulations.

Later this year, the Canadian group plans to release a first attempt at an index -- an assessment of community health, living standards and people's division of time among work, family, voluntarism and other activities. Over the next several years, the team plans to integrate those findings with measurements of education, environmental quality, "community vitality" and the responsiveness of government. Similar initiatives are under way in Australia and New Zealand.

Ronald Colman, a political scientist and the research director for Canada's well-being index, said one challenge was to decide how much weight to give different indicators.

For example, Dr. Colman said, the amount of time devoted to volunteer activities in Canada has dropped more than 12 percent in the last decade.

"That's a real decline in community well-being, but that loss counts for nothing in our current measure of progress," he said.

But shifts in volunteer activity also cannot be easily assessed against cash-based activities, he said.

"Money has nothing to do with why volunteers do what they do," Dr. Colman said. "So how, in a way that's transparent and methodologically decent, do you come up with composite numbers that are meaningful?"

In the end, Canada's index could eventually take the form of a report card rather than a single G.D.P.-like number.

In the United States there have been a few experiments, like the Princeton plan to add a happiness component to labor surveys. But the focus remains on economics. The Census Bureau, for instance, still concentrates on collecting information about people's financial circumstances and possessions, not their perceptions or feelings, said Kurt J. Bauman, a demographer there.

But he added that there was growing interest in moving away from simply tracking indicators of poverty, for example, to looking more comprehensively at social conditions.

"Measuring whether poverty is going up or down is different than measuring changes in the ability of a family to feed itself," he said. "There definitely is a growing perception out there that if you focus too narrowly, you're missing a lot of the picture."

That shift was evident at the conference on Bhutan, organized by Dr. Colman, who is from Nova Scotia. Participants focused on an array of approaches to the happiness puzzle, from practical to radical.

John de Graaf, a Seattle filmmaker and campaigner trying to cut the amount of time people devote to work, wore a T-shirt that said, "Medieval peasants worked less than you do."

In an open discussion, Marc van Bogaert from Belgium described his path to happiness: "I want to live in a world without money."

Al Chaddock, a painter from Nova Scotia, immediately offered a suggestion: "Become an artist."

Other attendees insisted that old-fashioned capitalism could persist even with a shift to goals broader than just making money.

Ray C. Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc., an Atlanta-based carpet company with nearly $1 billion in annual sales, described his company's 11-year-old program to cut pollution and switch to renewable materials.

Mr. Anderson said he was "a radical industrialist, but as competitive as anyone you know and as profit-minded."

Some experts who attended the weeklong conference questioned whether national well-being could really be defined. Just the act of trying to quantify happiness could threaten it, said Frank Bracho, a Venezuelan economist and former ambassador to India. After all, he said, "The most important things in life are not prone to measurement -- like love."

But Mr. Messinger argued that the weaknesses of the established model, dominated by economics, demanded the effort.

Other economists pointed out that happiness itself can be illusory.

"Even in a very miserable condition you can be very happy if you are grateful for small mercies," said Siddiqur Osmani, a professor of applied economics from the University of Ulster in Ireland. "If someone is starving and hungry and given two scraps of food a day, he can be very happy."

Bhutanese officials at the meeting described a variety of initiatives aimed at creating the conditions that are most likely to improve the quality of life in the most equitable way.

Bhutan, which had no public education system in 1960, now has schools at all levels around the country and rotates teachers from urban to rural regions to be sure there is equal access to the best teachers, officials said.

Another goal, they said, is to sustain traditions while advancing. People entering hospitals with nonacute health problems can choose Western or traditional medicine.

The more that various effects of a policy are considered, and not simply the economic return, the more likely a country is to achieve a good balance, said Sangay Wangchuk, the head of Bhutan's national parks agency, citing agricultural policies as an example.

Bhutan's effort, in part, is aimed at avoiding the pattern seen in the study at Harvard, in which relative wealth becomes more important than the quality of life.

"The goal of life should not be limited to production, consumption, more production and more consumption," said Thakur S. Powdyel, a senior official in the Bhutanese Ministry of Education. "There is no necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level of well-being."

Mr. Saul, the Canadian political philosopher, said that Bhutan's shift in language from "product" to "happiness" was a profound move in and of itself.

Mechanisms for achieving and tracking happiness can be devised, he said, but only if the goal is articulated clearly from the start.

"It's ideas which determine the directions in which civilizations go," Mr. Saul said. "If you don't get your ideas right, it doesn't matter what policies you try to put in place."

Still, Bhutan's model may not work for larger countries. And even in Bhutan, not everyone is happy. Members of the country's delegation admitted their experiment was very much a work in progress, and they acknowledged that poverty and alcoholism remained serious problems.

The pressures of modernization are also increasing. Bhutan linked itself to the global cultural pipelines of television and the Internet in 1999, and there have been increasing reports in its nascent media of violence and disaffection, particularly among young people.

Some attendees, while welcoming Bhutan's goal, gently criticized the Bhutanese officials for dealing with a Nepali-speaking minority mainly by driving tens of thousands of them out of the country in recent decades, saying that was not a way to foster happiness.

"Bhutan is not a pure Shangri-La, so idyllic and away from all those flaws and foibles," conceded Karma Pedey, a Bhutanese educator dressed in a short dragon-covered jacket and a floor-length rainbow-striped traditional skirt.

But, looking around a packed auditorium, she added: "At same time, I'm very, very happy we have made a global impact."

More on happiness economics
From the LA Times:

Happy? Let's Sum It Up

Researchers tap the `dismal science' of economics to quantify well-being. It isn't money that leaves you feeling like a million.

By Stuart Silverstein, Times Staff Writer
8:27 PM PDT, July 2, 2006

Midway into his career as a professor, USC's Richard Easterlin deduced something that seemed astonishing, at least for an economist: Money doesn't buy happiness.

Grandparents and sages have said as much through the ages. Yet when Easterlin published his first happiness research in the 1970s, fellow economists brushed it off. "People don't take this as serious stuff," he said. "They think it's maybe cocktail party conversation."

Things are looking up these days for Easterlin, 80, and the small but increasingly visible network of researchers relying on the so-called dismal science of economics to find the keys to happiness.

If earning more money generally does surprisingly little or even nothing to make societies happier, they wonder, what works better? Good health? Marriage? Sex? By one reckoning, boosting the frequency of sex in a marriage from once a month to once a week brings as much happiness as an extra $50,000 a year.

Happiness economists review thousands of attitude surveys and apply high-level math to calculate the satisfaction connected with activities and demographic traits. It sounds like sociology, but the economists are more apt to focus on money and work.

Consider the sex study. Through surveys and some fancy math, economists essentially created a ladder of happiness and found that the extra sex and the extra $50,000 provided the same boost.

Happiness economics, its enthusiasts emphasize, isn't a touchy-feely enterprise. They say that it eventually could harness the power of economics to better benefit humanity and help guide public policy.

Their findings often suggest that, instead of focusing so heavily on economic growth, governments could turn more attention to things that might, in essence, cheer people up. The options include better medical care, greater job security and reduced crime. These cost money, but they don't necessarily put more cash in a person's pocket.

With those sorts of goals in mind, the United Kingdom is exploring the development of one or more national indicators of well-being, and a group of prominent American and foreign academics is calling on the U.S. government to do the same.

Bhutan, a small Buddhist nation in the Himalayas, has drawn international attention with plans to introduce an array of "Gross National Happiness" indicators. The measures, due by 2008, would track such areas as health and education, along with "cultural vitality and diversity" and "psychological well-being."

Skeptics question whether this and other efforts are anything more than happy talk.

The study of happiness also attracts neuroscientists, sociologists and, in particular, psychologists. Economists sometimes collaborate with these experts, such as the one who teamed with psychologists in a study published Friday in the journal Science that reinforced the notion that money buys little happiness.

But other academics wonder if this is a place for money-minded number crunchers.

"I think whoever coined the term 'dismal science' was not that far off," said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent social psychologist at the Claremont Graduate University. He said economists "see things often so much out of context and so one-dimensionally.... I wouldn't mistake real life for what economists talk about."

Although the findings of happiness economics can cut both ways politically, some observers see a left-leaning tendency.

"Most of the things that have been published about the policy implications of happiness research have definitely had a big-government slant to it. They're like, 'Here's another reason for the government to do something else,' " said Will Wilkinson, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.

Mainstream economists, accustomed to such measures as gross domestic product, frequently view the attitude surveys examined by happiness economists as squishy and subjective. They question whether any poll can scientifically measure happiness.

Easterlin and others who've followed his pioneering research insist it's possible.

Enrico Marcelli, a Harvard researcher who earned his doctorate from USC, contends that his work with Easterlin shows that happiness among American adults peaks at age 51 — earlier than many other researchers had believed — and that men start becoming happier than women after the age of 48.

One possible reason for that gender gap: Men who survive into old age are more likely to be married than older women, who often must carry on alone, either widowed or divorced.

Economic thinkers considered the pursuit of happiness as far back as the late 18th century. Legal theorist Jeremy Bentham and, later, John Stuart Mill, the 19th century English philosopher and economist, wrestled with "utilitarianism," the idea that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

In more recent times, economists generally have been more buttoned-down. They usually portray people as rational, wealth-maximizing actors in the marketplace, and the general working assumption is that when it comes to money, more equals better.

But around 1970 — while he was at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, near Stanford — Easterlin started doubting that premise for society as a whole.Easterlin, who already had branched out from conventional economics into demographics to study the American baby boom, got acquainted with psychologists and sociologists who told him about the scattered surveys that asked people about happiness.

Easterlin gathered data from 20 countries, and the findings were perplexing. In each country, rich people reported more happiness than the poor. But that was just the beginning of the story.

In comparing nations overall, the pattern was mixed, with the happiness levels for poor countries often nearly as high as they were for richer ones. (The United States was tops in happiness, but Cuba was a close second.)

What's more, data available from 1946 to 1970 led him to put forth what became known as the Easterlin Paradox: Even though the average U.S. family became more than 60% richer, it didn't make Americans significantly happier. In late 1947, about 42% of Americans surveyed by one pollster pronounced themselves "very happy." Though the numbers went up and down over the decades, a similar poll found that only 43% declared themselves "very happy" in 1970.

These results intrigued Easterlin. But colleagues, and one of his old graduate school instructors at the University of Pennsylvania, pooh-poohed the research: "You may think it's path-breaking ... but the economics profession isn't going to buy this at all."

By the 1990s, however, happiness economics began to emerge, with European researchers leading the way. More recently, research has picked up in the United States, building on Easterlin's early findings. The lanky USC professor reentered the field himself just over a decade ago after fresh interest in, and criticism of, his happiness work emerged.

Particularly in the United States and other wealthy nations, "we're just so many times richer than our grandparents were that we can afford to think, 'Do we actually need more money now?' " said Andrew Oswald, a British economist widely considered one of Europe's foremost happiness researchers.

Easterlin's explanation for the un-budging national sense of well-being is that, despite cultural differences that predispose some countries to be happier than others, an all-too-human fact of life transcends borders. The more a nation has, the more its people expect, sinking the chance that a society's greater wealth will lift all spirits.

In poor countries, most happiness economists differ with Easterlin and contend that rising income — when it means, say, extra food or a better roof overhead — will make people a little happier. Still, they say, happiness economics might aid governments in developing programs to protect their citizens' rising sense of well-being.

One example: Policy-makers could promote stable employment even at the risk of spurring inflation. People don't like rising prices but, according to various studies, "unemployment makes people very unhappy," said Carol Graham, co-director of the Center on Social and Economic Dynamics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

But how to reduce happiness to the figures and formulas favored by economists?

Consider the imaginative approach of Luis Rayo, an economist at University of Chicago. He applies and develops approaches from evolutionary psychology, together with mathematical analysis, to explore why people experience happiness the way they do.

Also in the mix are behavioral economists and other experimental economists, including Southern Californians Michael McBride of UC Irvine and James Konow of Loyola Marymount University.

Like psychologists, these economists bring human test subjects into the lab. For instance, McBride has explored people's reactions to various outcomes and situations in a game of chance, "matching pennies." He found that satisfaction suffers somewhat, even among big winners, when people hold high expectations.

Satisfaction also suffers when they find out that other players fared well. The urge not just to keep up with the Joneses but to surpass them is documented in many happiness studies.

(Put another way: Many people would welcome $6 if someone else got $5. But they'd be even happier with $5 if the other guy got $1.)

Yet the biggest names in happiness economics are the empiricists, who evaluate attitude surveys and sometimes other indicators of well-being or misery, such as suicides.

The happiness economists also are interested in finding ways to better measure the ingredients of happiness, sometimes translating them into financial values. That's what led Oswald and a co-author, Dartmouth economist David Blanchflower, to produce the controversial — and sometimes joked about — research equating increasing the frequency of sex to $50,000 in extra income.

"We're trying to understand how people feel and to try to get a quantitative measure of that," said Blanchflower, a respected economist recently named to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, which sets interest rates in Britain. "It's actually quite a serious issue."

When Easterlin and Oswald put together a one-day symposium on the economics of happiness at USC in March, nearly 30 leaders and up-and-comers in the field arrived from schools in England, France, Sweden and Switzerland, as well as Canada, Mexico and the United States.

One of the youngest scholars, Anke Zimmermann, 27, a USC graduate student under Easterlin's tutelage, outlined a study showing that men and women who have lived with romantic partners before marriage enjoy a surge in happiness when they wed.

After a honeymoon period of a year or so, their sense of well-being returns to where it was before they exchanged vows. Still, they remain happier than they were before they started sharing a roof.

Other presenters pointed to further happiness research discoveries, including: When a neighborhood has lots of residents who identify with a religion, all of the neighborhood's residents tend to be happier, even atheists; visits by friends tend to be more uplifting than visits by family members; and life satisfaction is drained far more by impaired mental health than by physical pain.

It's clear to Easterlin that happiness is found in other ways too. Ever the teacher, he advises young people that they will find more happiness if they pursue a career they love rather than one they think will pay better.

"People think they're going to be better off if they make more," Easterlin said. "What they don't take into account is that when they come home with more money, all of a sudden they decide, 'Well, now I need a Lexus.' "

Which explains a comment from UC Irvine's McBride. "People ask me all the time, 'What do you learn about happiness? What's the secret to happiness?' " McBride said. His standard answer, only half-kidding: "Low expectations."

Related links
America's exceptional values
A shining city on a hill:  what Americans believe
America's cultural mindset

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