Friday, 15 January 2010

On Commuting and Costa Rica: Bright Lights and Stop Lights

I'm pleased that the wikiprogress team have started this blog. Its an opportunity for us all to share some of the random thoughts that crossed our mind, and the news that crosses our in box.

So I'm supposed to blog about Progress. And when I talk about progress I'm talking about whether life ... my life, your life, the planet ... is getting better. I'm thinking about wellbeing, sustainability, quality of life, happiness, development: a myriad of terms that all take different lenses to look at whether life is getting better.

This is a big question of course and one that I wouldn't dare to try to answer comprehensively for the rest of you. In fact I am reluctant even to try to answer it for myself in any rigorous way. But this morning, when I was trying to take the Parisienne metro to work, my wellbeing was far from high. Line 13 was running slowly again - the usual state of play so far in 2010 - and there was a horrendously high density of disgruntled commuter/ square metre in the carriage. Anyway, I was reminded of a presentation that Ed Diener, noted happiness researcher (and appropriately the Josseph R Smiley Distinguished Professor of Psychology), gave at a conference the OECD organised back on 2007. Ed is one of the world's foremost researchers into subjective wellbeing (popularly referred to as happiness) and one of the crowd asked him what, even if we could measure this stuff, was the point and why would anyone care: "What's the policy relevance?". This is a common question and I suspect Ed has heard it more often than I have heard "The traffic on line 13 is running slow today because of an incident....". He replied that commuting was an interesting example. Commuting, according to the data, is one of the activities that makes people unhappy. So the dream of moving to the suburbs for a bigger house and a longer trip to work will seldom raise a commuter's levels of wellbeing. And this has implications both for the personal choices we all make, as well as for urban planners. If only we looked at the evidence more.... Go Prof Diener! I quite agree.

When I finally got out of the metro I was back on ground level and the sub-arctic temperatures. My mind turned longingly to the tropics and also to mammals (when I am not complaining about the metro or working at the OECD I am usually looking for mammals somewhere... see if you'd rather read about this than progress). Costa Rica has long been on the list of places to go - they have a great ecotourism scene there apparently and it also seems to be one of the best places in the world to see Sloths... now there's a mammal that has its priorities straight. Anyway, Costa Rica is back in the progress news last week because once again we are reminded that this is the happiest country in the world - see the Op Ed in the New York Times. Now the data are difficult to interpret and it isn't quite as cut and dried as this piece makes out, partly because some of the different approaches that prove the point are using the same data set so its not surprising they draw the same conclusion (there was a nice critique on the freakonomics blog). Be that as it may, its more proof that if you want to start a public debate about progress and the need to think beyond the economy then I know of no better way than to talk about happiness. The media love it, the public gets it. Yes, perhaps there are problems with the data but at least it gets us talking.

There had been more evidence to back up my point a few weeks ago, but this time the focus was a few thousand kilometres north. I spent a week in the bright lights of New York over Christmas. Now New Yorkers are the least happy people in the US, at least according to the research from Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu. I was surprised because I love NYC, but of course visiting is not the same as living there. And while I love the buzz of New York and also like the people, I can imagine that the stress of life there and the sheer amount of work that everyone seems to do might take its toll on your subjective wellbeing. Of course the New York media was full of the story, and people phoning the radio stations were often quite critical of the findings... New Yorkers are not known to be shy when it comes to expressing themselves. But like it or not, the research had an impact and it got people talking about the progress of their society.

One of the criticisms about happiness research, especially when it compares countries or regions, is that differences in language and culture can have a misleading effect on the results. The evidence is mixed on this and if, as I believe, there are cultural differences then fair enough. Our cultures are different and they have an effect on us, so those differences can be a genuine part of our subjective wellbeing. Perhaps we should try to understand the effect of culture rather than see it as a statistical problem that needs to be controlled for in a model.

Now we often describe individuals as 'a glass half empty or a glass half full' person. Perhaps we can do the same for societies. But is there a test we could apply? The first thing that sprang to my mind was how we describe traffic lights.

Traffic lights have many names. In Zambia we used to call them robots. I have no idea why, but I do remember that they were not often working, largely because some of the more entrepreneurial locals would remove the green and red glass and sell pieces of it to unwitting tourists as emeralds and rubies. The French have (on the whole I think unfair) reputation as being a bit of a miserable bunch. But why do they describe their traffic lights as 'feu rouge' (red lights). This is somewhat pessimistic and definitely a glass half empty outlook. Perhaps in Costa Rica they call them "luz verde". I'd better go to find out for myself.


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