Sometimes I feel like a stuck record.
Six years ago I gave a lecture in Sydney explaining that :
- Happiness is an idiotic public policy goal.
- It isn’t the same as well-being (quality of life) – which is a desirable goal.
- The two bear no relationship in old age. Something that the UK and USA have now both already shown. Happiness looks “good” in old age but it’s a cohort/longitudinal effect: either the current cohort of older people are using very different yardsticks “we got through the war” or older people naturally think along the lines of “we got to age 80, we must be doing OK” (despite a wealth of evidence to suggest huge numbers are unhealthy, poor, lonely and generally in need of greater resources).
Well, the Sydney Morning Herald has picked up on one of these silly life satisfaction/happiness surveys which has (finally) cast doubt over the “everything is hunky dory in old age” conclusion….which was what they were proclaiming, along with the US and UK media, until recently, when questions over such “happiness/life satisfaction” methods began to be raised on the back of (now not particularly “new” academic research). Better late than never I suppose.
But do you know why this is so frustrating?
The methods to properly value well-being/quality of life quantitatively, without using these “life satisfaction numbers” were developed – ON THE BACK OF AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH – in 2008 and applied in the UK and Australia very quickly by me and my colleagues.
Why is asking a person for a numerical score bad? Well the bottom line, these were debunked by 2001 in the top academic marketing journals in the world. Did you know that “4” in Mandarin also has connotations with “death” and so is considered an unlucky (and unused) number by a lot of Chinese people? That two other numbers we could use in these scales have a Cantonese connotation with something that an internet family filter will kill – suffice to say “flaccid” and “hard” are the relevant descriptors.
That’s just for starters.
We have methods to properly describe well-being using a framework devised by one winner of the Economics “Nobel” prize and a method to properly value it using a framework of another.
And the ironic thing? All this work came together based on work done in Sydney 10 years ago.
But the Sydney Morning Herald, although running one or two little pieces on quiet news days, never had the courage to showcase that Australian research. It wasn’t until the Brits and the Yanks showed it that it now appears as a major article. Tall poppy Syndrome anyone?
For almost 6 years I worked just down the road from the SMH and the ABC, yet was only asked to do “filler” stories. I feel sad rather than annoyed. By the time I left Australia I’d realised what the score was. It’s a shame. Sexy news, rather than good research wins out – and that’s NOT specific to Australia. But when the result is whole generations of people being under-resourced, one has to stop for a moment and think.