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Home NATIONAL‘Are you Happy?’- Policymakers should hear the reply
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Tue, 31 Dec, 2013 02:01:14 AM
Finnish social science professor tells Xinhua
FTimes-Xinhua Report by Li Jizhi, December 31

Statesmen have always been focusing on economic growth and welfare development, but now it is the time for them to pay more attention to people's inner happiness, a Finnish social science professor said in a recent interview with Xinhua.

In mid-September, the earth institute of Columbia University issued a report of World Happiness 2013, in which Denmark ranked the first place, followed by other Nordic countries. Finland was No. 7.

Explicating the research methodology, Heikki Hiilamo, a newly appointed professor of social policy in Helsinki University, said the main conclusions of the report were drawn based on the interviewees' subjective answers to one or two simple questions like "Are you happy?"

He believed the method is a new way to look at the policy outcomes and performance of different governments. "Previously people thought that feelings don't matter and people change their views quite frequently."

Moreover, he said people "have been saying the results are not comparable across different cultures. But when we have measures from various 10 points, and we can estimate and analyze changes, those measures become more and more robust."

In the 2013 ranking of happiness, Denmark got the highest mark of 7.693 points, and all the top 20 countries and regions got over 7 points, whereas the last 13 out of the total 156 countries and regions were marked below 4 points.

"It is very difficult to define what is well-being," said Hiilamo, adding that the happiness report offered a new angle.

"Policy makers have been concentrating on income and health and so forth. Researchers have been looking at things which constitute not good life but bad life, like you are suffering from poverty, you have low incomes, or you have health problems. But they haven't focused that much on people's life satisfaction," said the professor.

"And this happiness research is very much interested in people's subjective feelings and they are saying that feelings matter, and we should be more concerned how people feel about their lives, not just about health problems, or economic problems," the expert continued.

 Nevertheless, the report also suggested that the ranking results were much related to variables like healthy life expectancy, GDP per capita, perceptions of corruption, freedom to make life choices, social support and generosity, which are known to be important for life satisfaction.

Hiilamo admited the approach has shortcomings, as it is possible the answers are culturally bound, i.e. people in a certain culture tend to give a certain type of answers.

 "If this is the case, it is very important to make comparisons between certain surveys in different time points, so that you are not just looking at the level of happiness at a certain point but can evaluate the changes."

For instance, if there is a very fast growing economy and the life satisfaction is not increasing, it seems this economic growth is not really benefiting the people on average.

But on the other hand, if the economic growth is fast and the life satisfaction is also increasing even though the starting point is low, then you can say the economic development is improving people's lives, he elaborated.

 As for the reasons behind the drop of Finland's position from No. 2 in 2012 to No. 7 in 2013, Hiilamo argued that it does not make any big difference.

 "It dosen't show that compared with other countries Finns don't think themselves as happy as last year, but to give a more precise answers I should really study if there are more differences in those surveys ... for example the season when the study is conducted affects people's perceptions. Finns tend to be happier during the summer time and less happy during the winter months when there is less light." 

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