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Decline Watch: Are happy days here again?

It's not all doom and gloom here at decline watch. We keep our eyes out for signs of recovery as well. Via Marginal Revolution, here a new paper from Princeton University's Angus Deaton, showing that Americans' contentment levels have returned to where they were before the crash. From the abstract:

In the fall of 2008, around the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and lasting into the spring of 2009, at the bottom of the stock market, Americans reported sharp declines in their life evaluation, sharp increases in worry and stress, and declines in positive affect. By the end of 2010, in spite of continuing high unemployment, these measures had largely recovered,
though worry remained higher and life evaluation lower than in January 2008. 

Decline-o-meter score:

 

This sounds great until you read into Deaton's conclusions, which substantially undercut the usefulness of this data. First of all, this may just show that Americans are adapting to their circumstances:

If people become accustomed to economic misery, so that the response of SWB to such pain is only temporary, the continuing harm is no less real nor demanding of policy attention just because people say that they are used to it. Sen (1985, 14) notes that “a person who is ill-fed, undernourished, unsheltered, and ill can still be high up in the scale of happiness or desire fulfillment if he or she has learned to have `realistic’ desires and to take pleasures in small mercies.” 

Taking a look at the world's top 20 happiest countries, according to Gallup's data, you get a sense of what this means. Yes, the top five consist of the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands -- the teacher's pets of international development statistics -- but the U.S. is also outranked by several much poorer countries, such as Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil, as well as one with a much higher level of political strife: Israel. Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive states, cracks the top 20, though I have my doubts about the reliability of polling there.

Deaton concludes:

In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St. Valentine’s Day than to a doubling of unemployment, are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread.  

Perhaps it's time to get the good folks at Hallmark working on some new holidays?

Frankly, the idea that Americans are becoming so accustomed to the idea of economic distress that they're not even that unhappy about it anymore is actually more depressing.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images for USTA

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Syria's guerrilla pollsters

Syria may be the most difficult country in the world to conduct a public opinion poll. But a "guerrilla polling" team did just that, publishing a survey today that attempted to gauge national opinion in the country - and it's bad news for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The poll, which was conducted by a team at Pepperdine University, found that 86.1 percent of Syrians disapproved of Assad's job performance, and 81.7 percent were calling for regime change. Those surveyed also expressed favorable views toward the anti-government protesters in the country, with 71.1 percent of Syrians saying that they held positive views of the demonstrators while only 5.5 percent viewing them negatively.

In a yet to be released second report, the survey will also publish data that contradicts the conventional wisdom about the support of Syria's Christians for Assad. "There's some chatter about how Christians were supporting Assad, and that was just not true," said Angela Hawken, a Pepperdine professor who helped produce the study and an FP contributor.

Conducting the survey was no easy task: Planning for the study, which was conducted for the Democracy Council of California, began in earnest in March, and the team first made contact with its partners in the field in May.

"We had planned to release something in June, but things just go wrong," said Hawken. "Logistically, it was very, very difficult to move the field team around. Getting things out of the country was more complicated than we initially thought. We toasted last week when the final surveys came in and all was well."

The team included two out-of-country trainers who, operating at times from Lebanon, trained eight pollsters in the Democracy Council's methods. The pollsters then surveyed 551 respondents on their views from Aug. 24 to Sept. 2. Given the ongoing government crackdown in the Syria, both the number of respondents and the field team were smaller than a similar poll that the Democracy Council conducted in 2010.

The other challenge faced by the pollsters was getting a demographically representative sample of Syria's population. "Women were really, really resistant to participate," Hawken said. "They were just harder to reach in general - I think they are just not out and about as much - and much more nervous" about expressing their political views. When all the surveys came in, only 11 percent of the respondents were women, so Hawken's team "up-weighted" their responses to achieve a gender balance that was more representative of Syria as a whole.

Response bias was also a problem. "[T]hose agreeing to participate in such an exercise...would be inherently more likely to express anti-government sentiment," the report said. In other words, since the poll was conducted without the approval of the Syrian government, pro-Assad Syrians may have been more leery of expressing their views.

But while the survey's challenges were significant, the important fact is that it was conducted in the first place. At a time when Facebook and Youtube are changing mass protests - and when the Obama administration claims to be working to align U.S. policies with the views of Arab citizens - reliable public opinion surveys are another way for people to bypass oppressive regimes to have their voices heard. It's a brave new world out there.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images