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Are you happy? The uses (and misuses) of perceptions data

Tomorrow marks the fourth World Happiness Day, an important sign that we need to go beyond traditional indicators of social progress and focus on people’s wellbeing too. Initiatives like the Better Life Index and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness attempt to measure people’s subjective experiences.

Although happiness indices are probably not the best way to measure subjective wellbeing, there is value in asking people what they think, their perceptions of life and their priorities. The MY World survey, with 7 million responses received to date, shows how keen people are to have their say. It also demonstrates that it’s possible to get information about people’s priorities at scale, which can be useful and influential in political processes. 

Are Latin Americans really happier than Eastern Europeans?

Asking people what they think isn’t always straightforward, of course. One of the biggest problems is using perceptions data to draw comparisons between people living in very different conditions and cultures.

For example, if you ask people about income sufficiency – i.e. what monthly income level do they consider to be minimal for their household to make ends meet’ – what constitutes ‘sufficient’ is likely to be determined by expectations. People living in poverty are likely to suggest far lower amounts than those accustomed to luxury. It would be foolish to, say, shape a redistributive policy based solely on what people think they need. 

Similarly, while there seems to be a high correlation (up to a point)  between a country’s economic development and the average ‘happiness’ of their populations, culture, context and frames of reference can highly influence how people respond to perceptions questions. Latin-Americans, for example, are known for being much more likely to express this emotion than Eastern Europeans. We therefore need to be careful about using these data to rank or compare countries based on their happiness or other perception indicators.

What we can do is use perceptions data to focus on what matters to different groups of people, and how views and opinions in each country change over time. Measuring subjective poverty over time can be useful to quickly reflect changes in living conditions, caused for example by in-kind benefits, better healthcare, and a different political environment. These are much harder to track using income poverty measures, or require vast – often unavailable – amounts of data to be aggregated into a multidimensional poverty measure. Perceptions data, therefore, can broaden our evidence base.

Perceptions data and the Sustainable Development Goals

The call for a ‘data revolution’ and the soon-to-be-agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide another opportunity to get people’s perceptions firmly embedded into systems of data collection and use. This goes beyond broadening our evidence base. It would provide a valuable way of maintaining the spirit of making the SDGs more inclusive and responsive to citizen’s views and demands, and is actually a way to bring in different – but complementary – aspects of wellbeing.

A recent ODI paper looks at three areas that are likely to feature in the goals – gender, governance and security – where perceptions data can address neglected issues and sizeable data gaps.

Take gender. Traditional indicators, including those used to monitor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) , measure progress on concrete outcomes like maternal mortality, or the share of women in parliament. Although there has been progress, much of this was about plucking the low-hanging fruit; further progress towards gender equality will require fundamental changes in social norms. Some forms of gender discrimination will be reflected in objective measures, but some others are harder to capture. Here, perceptions indicators on discriminatory social behaviours such as female genital mutilation or gender discrimination in employment can help to understand what is impeding progress towards equality.

Same goes for governance and security. Asking people what they think of their governments or how safe they perceive their neighbourhoods to be can highlight significant problems in awareness, in access to justice or in the institutions in charge of protecting civilians and delivering quality public services, including security.

Perceptions data can also help us understand when people are dissatisfied or where policy fallsshort, highlighting critical points for intervention. For example, in the lead up to the Arab Spring, Egypt and Tunisia had been praised for fairing relatively well in terms of objective indicators commonly used to measure wellbeing. Yet the events that unfolded clearly demonstrated important unaddressed issues that perceptions could have shed light on.

So while perceptions data don’t replace objective measures of wellbeing, asking people what they think could become a cornerstone of the data revolution. If we collect and use these data carefully, we can start measuring some of the trickier and more complex issues that the MDGs neglected.