Introducing the Freedom Index
It is often said that money can’t buy you happiness – and it is now formally accepted in many quarters that happiness is not simply a function of economic prosperity. The concept of happiness economics holds that to create satisfied societies, we should strive to increase not just our GDP, but also the collective level of happiness we experience.
Research already undertaken in this field has yielded surprising results. Far from being dominated by rich countries, the Happy Planet Index (happyplanetindex.org) shows Costa Rica, Vietnam and Cambodia leading the world rankings.
Despite worldwide acceptance of the importance of happiness, however, policymakers still focus on well-established economic drivers. It seems that politicians the world over believe that voters still care most about money. We believe this belief persist for two reasons. Firstly, they consider happiness hard to measure and, secondly, they are accustomed to placing their trust in established economic models that are financial in subject and theoretical in nature.
This is misguided. A vast amount of hard data is harvested every year by the United Nations, in countries all over the world. Much of it is based on interviews and surveys, all carefully designed by professionals to yield reliable insights. As a result, data exists for an enormous range of indicators.
The temptation for policy-makers to rely on theoretical models is arguably more insidious. Despite the ideal worlds depicted in such models, there is a tendency to default to established theory throughout the developed world, from academia to the corridors of power.
The truth is out there
Theory is important, of course. But as data scientists, we believe nothing but the truth. We care only for empirical observations; for reality. And reality often has a way of hiding the truth. At DataStories, it is our mission to reveal it, in all its unexpected glory.
We were keen to investigate whether one universally component of happiness can be linked to any economic drivers. Because if it can, the world’s policy makers can turn their attention to improving our happiness. Finally, they will be able to hear the story the data is telling them.
That component is the perception of freedom of choice. It is widely accepted, that freedom of choice is an important aspect of happiness; indeed, it is one of the principles on which most western democracies are founded. Given that a wealth of reliable data collected by the UN and other globally recognised sources can be used to investigate the link between people’s perceived freedom of choice with many other factors, plus its obvious importance to policy-makers as a component of happiness, we decided to examine it in depth.
In Autumn 2014, we set out to see what drives it – and whether there are any objectively measure indicators impacting subjective freedom of choice. The answer – as always – lay in the data.