Ethics@work: How're we doin'?

The good news is that most Israelis seem to be satisfied with life.

smiley face 88 (photo credit: )
smiley face 88
(photo credit: )
As New York City mayor, Ed Koch had a praiseworthy trait: he was always looking for feedback. "How'm I doin'?" he was always asking. Societies are the same way: they're always looking for a way to evaluate themselves. One way is to measure supposedly "objective" yardsticks like economic production. Another way is simply to ask people how they feel, as Hizzonner did. The Israeli Social Survey, carried out annually by the Central Bureau of Statistics since 2002, does exactly this. Alongside objective questions like family status and household income, it asks Israelis about their life satisfaction, how they feel health-wise, and how optimistic they are about the future. Are these "touchy-feely" responses of value? Any statistic is only as good as it conforms with our collective assessment of our welfare, but my impression is that people's responses to the "life satisfaction" question seem extremely well-correlated with how we would guess their happiness is. I don't know if you can talk about an "honest" or "dishonest" answer to such a subjective question, but the correlations seem consistent and intuitive. The good news is that most Israelis seem to be satisfied with life. Over 80% of Jews, and about 75% of Arabs, replied that they are "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with life - the other choices are "not so satisfied" or "not satisfied at all. Can money buy happiness? Well, it seems to help. For both men and women, and for both Jews and Arabs, the fraction of people who are satisfied with life rises in a fairly predictable way with income. Among Jews, it's fairly consistent that doubling income increases the fraction of satisfied Israelis by about five percentage points. Among Arabs the numbers jump around a little more (perhaps because the sample size is much smaller), but the trends are very similar. But poverty is not the biggest simcha-breaker. Even among the poorest families, about 70% of Jews and about 60% of Arabs still consider themselves basically satisfied with life. Good family relations are important to everyone. Among Jewish men, 90% of those "very satisfied" with family relations are satisfied with life, and only 52% of those not satisfied at all. Among Arab men, and among women, the importance is even greater. Among Jewish women "not satisfied at all" in their family lives, only about 40% expressed satisfaction with life; among Arab men, only 20%, and among Arab women in the survey, none who were "not satisfied at all" with family life were satisfied with life overall. (Again, the extreme reactions are partially due to small sample size.) Health has a very significant impact on satisfaction, but it is interesting that even among the people with the poorest health - those who stated that their health is "not good at all" - about 60% are satisfied with life. Those who reported their occupation as "ill/handicapped" are also much less satisfied than others but, even among these, the majority are satisfied on the whole. A critically important question in welfare economics is, to what extent are non-economic sources of misery amenable to economic solutions? If a person is unhappy because of poor health, can more income (which will not restore health) do anything for his or her well-being? The answer seems to be that throwing money at problems can help. Among people with poor health, or with poor family relations, increased income is still strongly correlated with increased life satisfaction. So what is the potential for integrating subjective data like "life satisfaction evaluation" into a more comprehensive measure of "gross national happiness?" From what we learned this week it seems promising. Last week, we mentioned that Amartya Sen had reservations about using this measure because he was afraid that miserable people would declare themselves happy because they lower their sights. That reservation doesn't seem to be worrisome in Israel. The poorest people, those with the worst health, those socially excluded (as many Arabs are) consistently report the lowest satisfaction. However, there is a severe problem with basing policy on these surveys. As long as no policy consequences depend on replies, we can assume that the replies are candid and disinterested. The second people know that budgets depend on their answers, the answers will be colored. Any well-defined subgroup will have something to gain by parading their misery. Perhaps, in a few years, the 2004 survey will be looked back on as the "golden age" of satisfaction surveys, before Asher Meir started trumpeting the value of these figures for public policy and ipso facto started mucking them up. I do believe that these surveys show convincingly that economic well-being is only one piece of the puzzle, and that other areas such as family integrity are critical contributors to "gross national happiness." At the same time, economic welfare has a critical role since, to a limited extent, it seems to "atone" for other kinds of misery and ameliorate the deleterious effects of physical and social deprivation. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He also is a rabbi.