October 25, 2011


Happiness Indexes - a Discussion

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.109 (September 2011)

Concepts and initiatives on how to measure happiness -- the ultimate goal of society and the economy -- have been spreading worldwide as an attempt to offer an alternative to measuring the progress of society by the level of gross domestic product (GDP). One of the more well-known of these concepts is Gross National Happiness (GNH), which originated in Bhutan. Meanwhile, in France, an advisory board comprised mainly of Nobel laureates in the field of economics released a report in 2009, the Sarkozy Report, in response to a growing awareness of this issue. The report indicated that the actual state of the economic society cannot be sufficiently grasped with current economic indices represented by GDP.

See also:
Bhutan: Creating Index to Measure People's Happiness

Also in Japan, studies and initiatives on a happiness index are being pursued, as represented by a research group on happiness indexes set up by the Cabinet Office of the Japanese Government. (Please refer to the following website of the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, which describes the popularization of happiness indexes in Japan and around the world.)

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (Japanese) (English)

In this way, governments around the world have begun to put together indicators to measure happiness. This allows us to see the potential for a shift away from politics aiming solely at economic growth and towards politics aiming to help increase true happiness by focusing not simply on economic performance (GDP) but also on genuine human values (happiness).

Meanwhile, there are also views critical of the politicization of happiness (or a happiness index). What problems can arise from politicizing happiness? A Japanese socialist, Hidekatsu Hojyo, has expressed his thoughts on the politicization of a happiness index in Japan in his work, "Happiness Index and Politics -- Shift from Politics Based on Public Opinion to Politics Focusing on the Feeling of Happiness," contained in a book entitled "What Does 'Social Security' Secure?" (Gakubunsha Co. 2011). Here we introduce some of the points for discussion raised by his work. While examining these critical perspectives as well, we also want to consider happiness indexes and politics that might help lead our society toward true happiness.

Here follows a summary of Hidekatsu Hojyo's critique.


The Japanese Constitution stipulates "the right of the people to pursue happiness" in Article 13, saying, "All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs." The happiness that each person seeks is different; thus, the truth may be that the nation's role is not to secure the people's happiness itself but to respect the right of the people to pursue happiness.

Japanese politicians, however, are now trying to measure levels of individual happiness expressed through an index, with the aim of raising the level of happiness by means of policy. In other words, the national government is trying to interfere with the pursuit of happiness by each citizen and instead control their happiness.

The Naoto Kan administration of the Democratic Party that came into power in 2010 espoused a slogan of "realizing a society with minimal unhappiness." Meanwhile, the largest opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, stated that it would aim to "realize a society with maximum happiness." Furthermore, the former Democratic Party administration headed by Yukio Hatoyama stated that it would establish an index to measure the level of citizens' happiness and work to improve that level. Thus, the levels of citizens' happiness and unhappiness has become a subject of direct political interest in present society.

It is said that behind this movement, there has been an shift in awareness that the goal of social development should be changed from economic growth to the enhancement of happiness because economic growth alone cannot make humans happy. However, we need to ask whether this is the real reason behind the movement to develop a happiness index or if there are other reasons.

Developed countries have reached a state in which they can no longer achieve the levels of economic growth they experienced in the past in the current context of expanding disparities in labor conditions and income standards concurrent with globalization and other changes. In political societies experiencing low economic growth together with expanding disparities, the movement is increasingly at risk of being taken advantage of by political maneuvering aimed at silencing people's complaints by shifting interest and attention away from economics to happiness.

In Japan, the Cabinet Office started conduction the National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences in 1995 with the aim of obtaining fundamental reference data for policy management by surveying the opinions of people in their daily lives in the changing social and economic environment. As a first step towards developing a new index to indicate happiness levels, the survey in FY2009 was conducted with the purpose of grasping the current status of people's actual happiness and satisfaction. The average happiness level at that time was calculated as 6.47 points out of 10 points.

As typically suggested in a survey question that asked "which measures would be effective to increase your happiness," happiness is approached as if it can be manipulated by policies.

When we review public opinion surveys on happiness from a sociological perspective, it becomes apparent that they are based on various hidden assumptions and preconditions. In that sense, we need to consider if these assumptions are consistent with reality. Here are some examples.

(1) A question asking about a person's level of happiness assumes that everyone feels happiness or unhappiness on a daily basis and that anyone can easily answer how happy or unhappy he or she is at the moment.

(2) Public opinion surveys assume that people share some kind of consensus on the meaning of happiness and unhappiness, although the concepts of happiness and unhappiness are abstract and their meaning varies among individuals.

(3) Measuring happiness and unhappiness by rating them on a scale assumes that happiness and unhappiness are symmetrical concepts and that their relationship is linear (Can happiness and unhappiness be considered as simple dichotomous concepts?).

(4) It is assumed that all respondents can accurately rate their happiness and unhappiness using the rating scale developed by survey designers.

(5) The surveys are based on the assumption that the value of happiness is the same for different individuals and that an average value for happiness can be calculated. In reality, there are various standards that respondents use as reference in rating their own happiness level. Some people assume happiness means being in an ideal state while others rate their happiness based on past experiences or expectations and/or uncertainty regarding the future. Others may assess their happiness by comparing themselves with people around them. Regardless of these qualitative differences, happiness is treated as if it has identical value for all people.

The incorporation of such assumptions and premises in public opinion surveys on happiness clearly has its basis in two specific ideas - happiness and quantification. Furthermore, simply adding up the rated levels of happiness subjective to each individual and calculating average values is like trying to understand society as a simple aggregation of individuals on the basis of an examination of [the subjective opinions of] individuals. But, is this an accurate way to portray reality?

Respondent selection is also a problem. The National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences was conducted by the Cabinet Office of Japan by surveying a sample of 4,000 people of both sexes living in Japan and aged from 15 to 79. To start with, the survey excluded those under 15 and over 79 years of age, as well as those with no fixed address, such as street people and people with no officially registered residence.

It can be argued that the numbers of such people are very small, and so their impact is small. However, it is true that people excluded from such surveys are ignored in the process of creating national policy that aims to realize a society with maximum happiness, or minimal unhappiness.

The survey did not consider categories of people whose answers could not be collected due to their relocation or absence, thus overlooking their levels of happiness. In principle, it is also difficult to collect data from people in categories such as business people who transfer alone without their families, single-parent families, nighttime workers, the working poor, hospitalized people and elderly people in nursing homes.

Many of the people whose data could not be collected or who were otherwise excluded can be regarded as socially vulnerable people. If the level of happiness is measured for people other than the socially vulnerable, the average level of happiness will be higher than the actual level. That is, the sense of happiness and living conditions of the vulnerable have not been considered, and so how to bring happiness to the vulnerable will not be reflected in national policy.

The results of such a survey, which are merely a digitized sum of the respondents' happiness levels, in fact hide the diversity of the qualities of happiness and unhappiness, and lead to the view that "On average, the public feels happy." When the national lifestyle preference survey results were released, most newspapers overrated the averages, while paying almost no attention to unevenness of the information used in the evaluation. The more uneven the data, the less its average can be regarded as typical.

Our current political leaders attempted an investigation of the subjective sense of human happiness and used the results to manipulate policy. This is not politics based on public opinion, but politics based on a sense of the public mood, or an aggregation of a subjective sense felt by the public. Democratic government should be based on discussions or exchanges of opinion on political issues. Recently, however, importance seems to be increasingly placed on subjective feelings rather than on discussions or exchanges of opinion on political issues.

In such a process, happiness/unhappiness will not be considered in terms of its actual qualities but in terms of mere digitized values. While people have used digital GDP values to indicate economic affluence, now they may try to measure happiness/unhappiness using the digital values of the happiness index.


The above points summarize the critical views of the sociologist, Hidekatsu Hojyo, regarding the measurement of well-being using the happiness index as it has been carried out in Japan, and on Japanese politics. These are thought-provoking opinions for me, and I hope you will also find them food for thought.

Written by Junko Edahiro