Improving citizen happiness is an important goal for many, if not all, governments. But what is happiness really? Can it be objectively measured? Can we discover the key factors that best correlate with happiness? And ultimately, can governments implement policies and programs that maximize happiness?
Is maximum happiness nothing more than a non-linear conjugant gradient optimization?
In the late summer last year, I had the pleasure of spending about a week in the United Arab Emirates, participating as a speaker in the National Security Middle East 2016 event in Abu Dhabi. It was the second time I travelled to the UAE last year, and I found the Emiratis to be warm, friendly and welcoming without exception.
It turns out that the Emiratis’ warmth is something they're now attempting to measure, and in some sense optimize across society. During one of the breaks at the event, I was speaking with my SAS Middle East colleagues, and they shared with me that the UAE government had recently created a Cabinet-level agency, the Ministry of Happiness, led by Her Excellency Ohoud bint Khalfan Al Roumi.
On International Happiness Day (March 20th – come on, you know you have it marked on your calendar…), Minister Al Roumi provided her definition of happiness in her article, A Quantum of Happiness:
Happiness is knowing that you and your family are safe; that there is opportunity open to you and your children; and that you can depend on a high degree of care, dignity, and fairness in your society.
She goes on to say that happiness is “…a flourishing and ambient joy” – a definition I will return to at the conclusion of this blog.
After my colleagues finished telling me about this new agency, I wasn't quite sure what to think. To American ears, the idea of a US Federal Department of Happiness with a big Corinthian-column ordained building in downtown Washington DC, sounds like some kind of dystopian alternate reality (despite the fact that the "pursuit of happiness" follows right behind those unalienable rights of life and liberty in our Declaration of Independence).
Part of the UAE happiness plan includes changing the names of government services centres to “customer happiness centers.” When April 14th rolls around each year here in the US, I am not quite sure what most Americans would think about sending off their 1040 tax returns to the “internal revenue happiness center.”
But this discussion did get me thinking. Having spent twelve years in the US Government, building analytics into government decision making processes, and as an analytics and data science guy at heart, how would one go about measuring something like this in society? An even more challenging question is how we would go about understanding the criteria that most correlate and predict the societal outcome we are driving towards (in this case, happiness). Then, how would we seek to optimize those criteria?
Minister El Roumi has recently outlined more of her agency’s strategy for achieving their goal, releasing the customer happiness formula, “unveiled by the Ministry of Happiness to boost happiness in the UAE through government services.” Just last month the agency released the first-of-its kind national survey aimed at collecting happiness data from 14,000 participants around the country. Specifically, the survey aims to collect feedback around happiness, positivity, quality of life, education, learning, healthcare, society, culture, environment, infrastructure, government services, living standards and work.
This data will present a large opportunity and many challenges at the same time. The ministerial agencies mandated with evaluating happiness measures will likely need sophisticated approaches to determine which objective measures most correlate to the subjective “happiness” responses.
There is a large body of global data that compares happiness around the world. Of course, simply knowing which objective measures correlate to happiness isn’t enough to improve anything. The next steps, from an analytics perspective, are to:
- Identify what policies and programs (both existing, and non-existent but possible) impact the objective measures.
- Quantitatively assess the degree to which those policies or programs will impact the objective measures alone or in combination.
- Optimize the portfolio mixture of policies and procedures to maximize the desired subjective outcome (here, happiness).
Even when this effort succeeds, I wonder about the long term ability of any government, no matter how sophisticated, to sustain programs that maximize happiness. Many of these objective measures are not in our control. What if there is a global recession? A disease pandemic? A war? Or any number of other possible objective measures that are known to negatively affect happiness? More broadly, what keeps cultures and societies from slipping into despair when things outside of human control occur?
I would offer that resilience – the ability to maintain one’s position and attitude even in the face of things around us that might make us unhappy – is just as important to society as happiness.
Many cultures around the world have been assessed for their outlook and well-being. A number of them maintain quite a positive outlook, despite circumstances like disease, high infant mortality rates, ravages of war, etc.
Maybe there's a difference between happiness and joy, that has to do with resilience in the face of our circumstances. While joy has a number of definitions, one that I like is right in line with this idea: joy is “a state of mind and an orientation of the heart… a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.”
As we kick off 2017 around the world, thinking about all of the ways that analytics can help improve our world and help its people, may the New Year be both happy … and joyful!