Just How Miserable Are You?

Ah, sweet misery/mystery of life, at last I found you: the misery index.

The misery index was initiated by economist Arthur Okun, an adviser to President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s. It is simply the unemployment rate added to the inflation rate.

You can chart the US misery index by year since 1948 if’n you want to, with helpful dividers that show who was President when. Not that we’re into blame.

Some people say that unemployment causes more misery than inflation (1.7 times as much), but this fact — if fact it is — is not reflected in the index. It does, however, suggest where an individual ought to focus their own efforts to lower their personal misery index, especially since inflation seems to be out of anyone’s control.

Anyway. What strikes me about this index is two things:

Then I got to thinking maybe I wasn’t using the right antonym, so I checked out the handy online thesaurus.

Given the intensity of some of the synonyms — agony, anguish, desolation, despair, torment, torture, woe, wretchedness — this isn’t exactly a sparkling selection of antonyms, but OK. Maybe the truth is that when we’re miserable, we would happily settle for mere calmness, comfort, contentment, ease, or relief. Maybe we don’t feel the need to hold out for full-on delight or  joy/joyfulness/joyousness.

This list did spark me to check on a *happiness* index, though, and hurray! There is such a thing, or sort of: a happiness ranking put out by the World Happiness Report (aka WHR, not to be confused with waist-to-hip ratio, which ratio at a personal level makes many people decidedly unhappy).

The Gallup World Poll, which remains the principal source of data in this report, asks respondents to evaluate their current life as a whole using the mental image of a ladder, with the best possible life for them as a 10 and worst possible as a 0.

Readers in Canada will be glad to know that we evaluate our lives just a hair better than do Americans or Brits and really, we could happily stop there, couldn’t we? Not that we’re competitive, and a good thing too because we land south of Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg (where *is* Luxembourg, anyway?), Sweden, Norway, Israel, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Ireland, and Germany.

In trying to explain the national differences in reported happiness, the WHR scholars go beyond economics (GDP per capita) to look at five other contributing factors:

  • Social support
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity (as simple as “Have you contributed to a charity in the past year?”)
  • Perceptions of corruption

They also ask folks (just yes/no, no essay questions) whether they’ve experienced three positive emotions (laughter, enjoyment, and learning or doing something interesting) and three negative ones (worry, sadness, and anger) in the previous day, giving a point out of three for each response. They do something analytically with the responses that I couldn’t (or at least didn’t) disentangle, but the results were striking anyway:

  • How much positive stuff was experienced yesterday? The average positive score was about 2/3, which means on average people reported having 2 positive emotions (as defined) on the previous day.
  • How much negative stuff was experienced yesterday? The average negative score was just under 1/3, which means some people didn’t report even 1 negative emotion (as defined) on the previous day.

You know, if there’s twice as much good as bad around the whole world (like, even in Luxembourg), that alone seems to be a pretty good reason to be happy. Take that, inflation.

Finally, drawing on all this research we can derive a proper happiness index:

Daily happiness =
laughter + enjoyment + learning or doing something interesting
– worry – sadness – anger

That’s as neat a summary as you’re likely to find of what the good life looks like, and how to get it.


This entry was posted in Laughing Frequently, Thinking Broadly and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Just How Miserable Are You?

  1. Tom Watson says:

    My happiness index is high and my misery index low. Perhaps I am one of the lucky ones.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Luck is part of it, for sure. As is choice.

      • barbara carlson says:

        It’s one reaction to negative stuff that is the difference. Also… Miserable? Wait awhile — strong emotions can’t be maintained.

        So neither can “happiness” which usually dissipates shortly after you believe yourself to be so. Contentment is what I aim for and
        gratitude for my long life. I’m still here!

      • barbara carlson says:

        It’s one’s reaction to negative stuff that is the difference. Also… Miserable? Wait awhile — strong emotions can’t be maintained.

        So neither can “happiness” which usually dissipates shortly after you believe yourself to be so. Contentment is what I aim for and
        gratitude for my long life. I’m still here!

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – 🙂 Good advice. Maybe we need a contentment index!

          • barbara carlson says:

            Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness scale instead of GNP.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – Those Butanese (Butanians? Butanites?) are onto something. I’ve often thought that humans, considered globally, are pretty smart. Collectively, we have all the bases covered.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I had a neighbour across the road who never had a good word to say about anyone (except me, of course, although, of course, I had no way of knowing what she said about me when I wasn’t there) and who seemed to wallow in her misery. I wonder if she got a plus count for enjoying her minus misery.

    As for me personally, I turn constantly to the wisdom of that great philosopher, Doris Day. who sang “Que sera sera…”

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – 🙂 It’s an interesting point: If we enjoy our misery, are we actually miserable, or happy? Enjoying making others miserable is a different activity altogether. As for Doris Day, maybe she was a Buddhist. They have a teaching along the lines of, “If you are unhappy because reality does not match your expectations, adjust your expectations.”

  3. I accept your song, and add another. Don’t Worry, Be Happy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU

    Seemed so simplistic when it was first released, but I still hear it being played. Maybe simplicity is part of happy.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – A worthy addition. Many thanks.

    • barbara carlson says:

      Yes. Abraham Lincoln (of all people) was said to have said, “One can decide to be happy.” Perhaps if he had said “content”. Expectations indeed get in the way of so much of it.

      I posted this on Jonathan Carroll’s FB and was taken to task by him and his many followers. Oh well. (What I saw on a Las Vegas parking lot wall in the 1990s — my motto ever since — as I have surely written here several times.)

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – Life, liberty, and the pursuit of contentment? I like it. It’s a shame there’s not a suitable “L” word. Maybe “weLL-being” would focus us better. As for Lincoln (ha, there’s the L), yes – we can decide to be content.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – FYI. The NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) is based in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and employs over 1,100 staff. NAMSA provides a wide range of logistics support services to NATO armed forces and NATO commands, individually or collectively. (BTW, the NAMSA bureaucracy makes the Canadian civil service look positively efficient.)

    So now you know, it is not just Luxembourg, it is the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. I drove through it one time on my way to Bastogne and then on to the D-Day battlefields.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – A Grand Duchy, no less! How the heck did I miss it, I wonder. I will be more respectful in the future.

  5. Eric Hrycyk says:

    Assuming 2022 end with a misery index of 20…..not even considering Monkey Pox, since I have turned 70 it appears my cumulated index is 45…..that makes me sad.

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