From the Editor

Drescher: Study finds connection between free press, happiness

jdrescher@newsobserver.comJuly 26, 2013 

Democracy is chaotic, sloppy and often inefficient. It’s typically accompanied by a free press, which adds to the tumult and clamor.

On the surface, a free press with a cacophony of voices might seem like a destabilizing force. But a researcher says a robust press instead makes a country happier.

Edson Tandoc Jr., a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, says people in countries with press freedoms are happier than people in countries without a free press. Tandoc and his co-author, Bruno Takahashi of Michigan State University, analyzed data from a 2010 Gallup survey that measured happiness across the world.

Gallup asked people in more than 160 countries how happy they were. The results might surprise you. Money isn’t everything. Costa Rica’s per capita income is less than 25 percent of that in the United States. Yet Costa Ricans are among the happiest people in the world, ranked sixth in the Gallup survey, ahead of the U.S. at 14th.

Denmark was No. 1. By comparison, Cuba and Libya tied for 67th, Russia was 73rd and Afghanistan was 115th.

Not just bread

Tandoc and Takahashi compared those happiness levels with indexes that measure freedom of the press (based on the legal environment, political environment and structure of media ownership); environmental quality; and human development (based on health, education and living standards).

Their conclusion: Across the world, press freedom directly predicts life satisfaction. The more press freedom a country has, the higher the level of happiness among its people.

“Increasing life satisfaction does not only come from increased (gross domestic product),” they wrote in a paper published by the journal Social Indicators Research. “Man does not live by bread alone. ... A free press is important. A healthy environment is also essential.”

Tandoc, 30, is a former reporter in his native Philippines (Gallup happiness ranking: 94th). He told me this week that the free press is important because it provides a check on government. But also important, he said, are the choices provided by diverse sources of information. Receiving information from one source – the government – makes people unhappy.

Getting information from a variety of sources makes people happy. “It makes them feel better in general, knowing they are getting what they think they are supposed to get,” Tandoc said.

Autocrats are mean

It’s not surprising that people in democracies are happier. Given that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, it follows that countries with a vigorous press would be happier.

So why don’t dictators, tyrants and autocrats allow for press freedoms? Tandoc’s research didn’t try to answer that question. But he said totalitarian governments might not want the press checking on them. Besides, he said astutely, “For some governments, the happiness of their citizens might not be a priority.” Sad but true.

Tandoc said the road to happiness is not direct; it’s a “complex path or web” that includes several connected factors. Improving the economy alone is not enough to boost people’s happiness. If it were, China would have leapt beyond Honduras (42nd) and Uruguay (35th) and into the upper tier.

Instead, China, which jails dissidents and restricts its press, is still a glum bottom dweller, trying to break a tie with Ghana as the 125th-happiest nation in the world.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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