Happiness study: Science journalism FAIL

I don’t like being so negative all the time. I promise my next post will be nicer.

BUT… You might have seen a lot of stories floating around about a new study into happiness reported in Science. If you didn’t, you can see a whole bunch of them here.

Every single one of them misses the point of the study. They all focus on the one little table printed in the report that ranks the states of the USA in order from happiest to least happy. This list, however, is not based on particularly new data and is all but irrelevant to the point of the study. No study that merely ranks the states like that would make it into the pages of Science.

The study actually has a really  interesting and controversial conclusion: that money can buy you happiness.

The point of the study is to compare what is called “quality of life” measurements from each state with “life-satisfaction” measurements in those states. You see, “quality of life” is an objective measurement of well-being which, given a big enough salary, will always be high. “Life satisfaction”, however, is a subjective assessment of how good your life is.

If the two are really strongly correlated, as the researchers think they have found, the conclusion you can draw is that you can buy happiness!

Lots of other research has suggested that once you get out of poverty, money doesn’t buy you much happiness. If these researchers are right, then it is a very significant contribution to the literature. A contribution that has been completely lost on the journalists editors looking for what they think is a snappy headline.

[I happen to think the researchers are wrong and there is a flaw in the design of their study. I've written a piece about that and if I'm lucky, somebody will publish it. I'll let you know when it's available. (I've also sent a letter to Science. How cool would it be to have a letter in Science?!?!?!)]

Update: Yes, I didn’t discuss the causes of this kind of poor reporting. I find that discussion kinda boring. And in this case it wasn’t entirely surprising given the press release which included the rankings. But actually, the press release does a better job of reporting on the significance on the research than any of the popular articles I’ve seen.