BOGOTÁ Reports on "happiness" in Latin American countries are increasingly frequent, published so often by now that they've lost any novelty value. More to the point, the public reaction tends to be a collective puzzlement as to where all this happiness is coming from.

In 2015, the Colombian government published the results of its first poll on "life satisfaction." In 2017 it measured the indices again and concluded as it had in 2015, that Colombians are highly satisfied with their lives (about 8.5 on a scale of 0 to 10). They were indeed more satisfied than citizens of countries with better living conditions and less crime and corruption. Even Scandinavian countries do not boast such levels of life satisfaction.

We can identify four general criticisms to this kind of official "good news:" distrust, insignificance, wastefulness, and ignorance.

The first concerns the mechanisms the government may be using to blur the country's reality. There are reports of public manipulation of data to ensure distraction from the various conflicts inside the country, which it wanted to conceal. Or that it was not possible for people in Colombia to be so happy given its socio-economic conditions. This level of criticism belongs to countries with great amounts of skepticism and distrust toward the government.

The second problematic category was to do with definitions. The government's measurements used standard methodologies validated worldwide and especially by OECD countries, to gauge life satisfaction. That signifies the assessment individuals have of their lives. It is not an easy concept to communicate and its many nuances might easily confuse its meaning. One term freely and interchangeably used to denote life satisfaction is "happiness." But life satisfaction and happiness are not the same. Being satisfied with life is wider in scope than happiness, referring to achievements, failures and their significance to you over a long period. Happiness is a state of being or mind and changes constantly, even if it is easier to talk about happiness, which fits nicely into a front-page headline.

Photo: Juancho Torres/ZUMA

The third issue was on the use of public funds to study "happiness" in the population. Some have called out such choices in a country facing other difficulties and needing to make priorities in spending. It became one more example of ordinary people failing to understand the administration's workings and processes. What would it have cost at the end of the day, to include some extra questions on life satisfaction in a multi-purpose survey, as statistical polls sometimes do, making happiness one of the areas for government evaluation? Certainly, it would cost less than an entire poll devoted to gauging happiness levels.

People's quality of life is very much affected by government decisions.

But the real criticism of the polls was on their purpose and the government's motive for placing them on the public agenda. Changing their meaning from life satisfaction to happiness, effectively trivialized the process. The pursuit of happiness is not per se a government objective, unlike improving everyday living standards that are closely tied to life satisfaction. Including data on life satisfaction (relating to work or wages for example) in polls would show a government's readiness to adopt a broader view of development, beyond its classical economic indices. One reasoning behind life satisfaction studies is that ultimately, traditional development policies do not yield information on more subjective dimensions that remain relevant to satisfaction with life.

People's quality of life is very much affected by government decisions and spending priorities. Traffic, public transport shortages for commuters, crime and the state of healthcare are variables with a direct and significant impact on life satisfaction. And all have to do with government.

The results of such nationwide polls in Colombia are often reflected in similar polls at a local level. In Cali, the country's third biggest city, life satisfaction is about the same as nationwide levels. CaliBRANDO, the polling system used in Cali, shows that city residents' satisfaction is due to the quality of their effective relations, state of health and optimism over the future, but also government decisions.

The process of measuring subjective indices has considerable room for improvement, and the first step here is to understand one's objectives in undertaking such polls. I would invite governments to think twice before measuring life satisfaction indices and describing them erroneously as happiness. That, remember, is a mental state that can change with a simple headache.


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