Happiness and the quality of government

From John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang, and Shun Wang:

This chapter uses happiness data to assess the quality of government. Our happiness data are drawn from the Gallup World Poll, starting in 2005 and extending to 2017 or 2018. In our analysis of the panel of more than 150 countries and generally over 1,500 national-level observations, we show that government delivery quality is significantly correlated with national happiness, but democratic quality is not. We also analyze other quality of government indicators. Confidence in government is correlated with happiness, however forms of democracy and government spending seem not. We further discuss three channels (including peace and conflict, trust, and inequality) whereby quality of government and happiness are linked. We finally summarize what has been learned about how government policies could be formed to improve citizens’ happiness.

Having read through the paper, I thought the main interesting result was that quality of service provision (effectiveness, rule of law, regulatory quality, and absence of corruption) is correlated with happiness whereas kind of democracy is not, with the latter democracy variable being an index related to voice, accountability, stability, and freedom from violence.

Of course it would be very interesting to rerun such a test during pandemic times.


Well, happy people are more likely to have confidence in all kinds of things. I wouldn’t assume causation runs in the direction of confidence in government leads to happiness. Similarly, I don’t know how exactly they are measuring service quality, but a lot of those measures ask people for perceptions of service quality (the most common measure of corruption is the corruption perceptions index), so there again you could just have happier people being more likely to be satisfied with things.

Assuming you are right , what is causing this “natural” happiness and why is it more prevalent in some countries?
“ wealth, quality of the environment, family stability genetics, , .... ?

I would say it's overwhelmingly because of wealth. The correlation between self-reported happiness and GDP per capita is pretty tight: https://ourworldindata.org/happiness-and-life-satisfaction. Moreover, self-reported happiness has also increased significantly in developing countries as they've gotten richer.

Greater GDP per capita may not lead to greater happiness at the very high end though, just as on an individual level the research suggests that income has a smaller but still positive impact on happiness above $75,000 or so.


The study attempts to control for some of these variables you list using obvious econometric methods such as multiple regression. So, sorry, your point is invalid.

Could you clarify what you mean? What "variables you list" are you referring to--I don't see any variables I'm listing in my comment? Also, regression can only identify correlations, not causation. My point is that we don't know which way the causation flows.

This study is likely to suffer from the high raters problem when comparing between countries.
I work in Market Research, particularly in regional studies. What we have observed is that in certain countries (eg India) people prefer to to give high ratings to everything. So if you ask people to rate happiness, confidence, optimism, even probability they'll have sushi during the day, people in those countries will all rate things highly. By contrast, in other countries such as Japan most people rate things low on everything. This means if you compare between countries you will have strong correlations between subjective ratings measures such as happiness and confidence but purely due to cultural differences in how people answer survey questions.

Our company did do some meta analysis (not peer reviewed) which suggested that countries with high ratings are those where individuals have more limited choice. This could be economic choice, where less affluent countries such as India or Indonesia have high ratings, or political choice such as Saudi Arabia.

So if you compare subjective scores such as ratings with objective data such as income or levels of democracy, those measures will be independent of each other.

Absolutely. I've noticed this anecdotally within the US too. When traveling in some parts of the US, I now mentally subtract a star from reviews of restaurants, hotels, attractions, etc.


It doesn't even rise to that standard.

Happiness is operationalized differently across cultures, anthropologically speaking. One culture's definition of "happy" may be another culture's definition of "despair". Weird but true.

Except for tax collection, we want a low quality service for that.

In terms of what they mean, accessing the paper allows us to look at their definitions:

The new results replicate the basic earlier finding that within-country differences in the quality of delivery (the average for effectiveness, rule of law, regulatory quality, and absence of corruption) have significant linkages to life evaluations. As before, there is no such linkage for differences in democratic quality, as represented by two measures, one capturing voice and accountability, and the other stability and freedom from violence.

So what paper effectively says is that *within* country, positive change in how respondents evaluate their governments in terms of their effectiveness, the rule of law, of corruption, and regulations, tend to move with happiness.

While respondents happiness does not move with positive evaluations of their freedom from violence or how accountable their government is.

Of course, this has normal direction of causality issues. But beyond I do wonder how many countries there are in which there are, for instance, rising perceptions of accountability, but declining perceptions of corruption and the rule of law.

The US could be an example where accountability is different from corruption/rule of law.

I believe corruption is generally low and rule of law is pretty strong in the US--i.e., I believe that most government bureaucrats would follow the law, treat people fairly to the extent the law allows, and would not take bribes or engage in similar forms of corruption.

On the other hand, there is little government accountability: there is nothing I can do to influence government policy, and in the unlikely event that a government official did try to screw me, I would have no real recourse.

This could also reflect my position in society too (pretty average middle-class person with enough of an education to navigate bureaucracy). Many people on the margins of society may perceive rule of law to be weaker and corruption to be greater, even as they also believe there is low accountability.

Maybe that would happen in their analysis if respondents generally regard it that way. (Seems strange to regard the US as a country where citizens have a relatively low ability to hold governments to account, but perhaps if you contrast with very small countries).

They provide no data supplements, so at this point who knows?

Who said we were supposed to be happy? Jesus Christ? St. Thomas Aquinas? Charlie Darwin?

These happiness studies are all completely bunk. See Bond and Lang (2019, JPE).


Bread and circuses, all around.

The Chinese unleashed an uncontrollable, evolving virus after keenly observing their tactical advantage in controlling its outbreak due to decades of not hollowing out state administrative capacity for public health. Straight from Sun Tzu.

We were attacked and bested by a foreign power, rather than that liberal wussy self-introspection that the US simply failed at the incredibly fundamental state function of protecting the public against a probable natural disaster.

I wonder about endogeneity of the democracy variable. Someone (I don't know who) once said that people get the government that they deserve.

Russians have had multiple opportunities to vote against Putin but have not. The majority of them like his anti-democratic policies, or are willing to put up with them because they like his strongman style.

Most people in most western countries would not put up with that, and demand western-style democracies.

In both cases the countries are getting what they want, so they have differing levels of democracy yet similar (relative) levels of happiness.

But that doesn't mean that Russia or the US could switch to the other's style of government and people's happiness would be unchanged.

It's the classic price index problem. People in Japan eat more fish, people in the US eat more steak, they might have similar levels of happiness but if we were to replace American steakhouses with seafood restaurants American happiness would fall (except for the sushi fans'). So fish vs steak could affect people's happiness but this could be invisible when comparing happiness in Japan vs the US.

There's also the problem, as another commenter said, that these studies of happiness are probably bunk.

This headline is absolutely hilarious.

First off, "Happiness Studies" are a complete waste of time. Vastly too subjective.

Second, "'quality' of GOVERNMENT?????????"


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