Home All Numbers are numbers, but People Still Speak for Themselves

Numbers are numbers, but People Still Speak for Themselves

written by Donald Officer 13 March 2023

Donald Officer, MA '89, is a strategic thinking practitioner who melds problem solving research models to help clients anticipate unexpected scenarios and opportunities while pursuing what is most meaningful to them. In addition to coaching, facilitation, and consulting Don blogs at The Intention Coach, where he welcomes comments. He is a certified facilitator and a member of the International Coach Federation and the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Donald's articles can be found here.

Jon Clifton

Jon Clifton

If the name Clifton rings a bell, it should. For three generations starting with Donald Clifton, this remarkable American family has been synonymous with surveys and the systematic study of strength finding. Unlike many polling organizations, their company Gallup Inc. is focused as much on surveyed individuals as on trends in politics or consumer preferences. So, it is no surprise that in Blind Spot Gallup CEO Jon Clifton asks readers to think seriously about a marked downward shift in well-being that successive recent surveys reveal. What might this trend foreshadow?

Paying Attention to Subjective Measures

Blind Spot Book Cover

Most of the world’s nations and institutions show a preference for objective or, more accurately, concrete measures, such as GDP, production outputs or jobs created. Declines in these measures are closely watched by businesses, governments and media. A lingering bias remains against subjective measures such as the quality of life as it is both experienced and assessed by individuals. But a 7.4% drop worldwide in self-reported personal well-being since 2006 can hardly be ignored.

One milestone for the hard facts side appeared in 1970 when the economist Milton Friedman wrote a now famous article for the New York Times Magazine. In it he declared that the social responsibility of business consists of making an honest profit full stop. Businesses and governments took note. Clifton discusses this turning point and concludes it led to a consequential shortfall in responsibility. He has the data to support that conclusion.

Subjective Measures Echo Other Trends

Clifton concedes that life quality measures will always be subjective. But that does not make them irrelevant or otherwise negligible. Being wealthier for example, is no substitute for agency or intimacy. On the other hand, lacking the wherewithal to feed, clothe or shelter yourself and family safely directly impacts well-being and consequently happiness.

Gallup reported significant progress in reducing food insecurity up until 2014 when 8.3% of the world’s population experienced severe food insecurity (risk of death by starvation) and 14.3% experienced moderate food insecurity (likelihood of long-term malnutrition). Sadly, since then we have been slipping. The pandemic was a big factor resulting in increases to 11.9% and 18.5% respectively, but the numbers were already moving up. When you consider the increase in world populations over the same period, this growth is a steadily moving catastrophe for well-being across the globe.   

Conflict and public safety present problems for citizens in many locales. North African states likewise rate low on the happiness scale and have since the return of anarchy or repression following the fading of the Arab Spring movements. Egypt, where the imposed stability of military dictatorship has enabled an increase in standards of living, the discouraging political climate has brought with it a disappointingly high level of unhappiness. Personal agency matters to the citizenry if not to their leaders. This is one of the blind spots in the title writ large.

Responding to the Data: Singapore

Two other striking national cases stand out in Blind Spot. Both Singapore and Rwanda are marvels of development. Singapore, after separating from Malaysia in the 1960’s faced a huge challenge. Small, underdeveloped and resource poor, the city state had only its people to look to. Over decades the tiny country became a financial and trading miracle well governed with solid business stewardship. A clean, safe, rich community, Singapore’s success was widely envied.

Singapore skyline

Singapore skyline

Then the Gallup world poll revealed an anomaly: Although Singaporeans ticked all the boxes for positive life quality, they shared only lacklustre positive experiences in their lives as lived. Over the first decade of this century personal enjoyment measures dropped 20%! History suggests an answer. After Singapore’s independence, life was demanding. Everyone worked long and hard to ensure survival. Yet, with the city successful by most standards, nose-to-the-grindstone attitudes and paternalistic discipline were still in place! Signs of prospective disengagement were developing beneath the surface in the bland, emotionless daily lives of the populace.

Seeing the shift for what it likely was, Singapore acted. Working hours were reduced and the work ethic was moderated. Fun was welcomed. The modest demeanor of the workforce was addressed. The need to show appreciation and demonstrate engagement among teams beyond contractual requirements was acted upon. The plan worked and subjective well-being levels rose. Gallup changed its worldwide calculations to create a better-balanced measure of life as lived.

Understanding the Data: Rwanda

Busy streets in Rwanda

Rwanda presented a similar discrepancy. Recovering from the horrific genocide of the 1990’s the country found its footing by realizing its strengths. A truth and reconciliation process for victims and perpetrators was undertaken. Rwanda moved on, and resilient reconstruction succeeded. Yet visible signs of economic progress did not yield parallel life satisfaction scores.

As CEO Clifton was challenged by Rwanda’s president on the apparent discrepancy. Clifton replied with a conciliatory open letter, followed by a Rwanda visit to seek understanding. The best explanation came from an elderly bishop who suggested that after the mass murders neither victims nor killers could grasp the unspeakable horror that unfolded decades ago. For the common good, everyone worked together, though the past still simmered as unresolved trauma.

Women’s Status; The Impact of the Pandemic

The Gallup CEO rightly devotes a chapter to the outrageous inequities women still bear with heroic resilience.

Another addresses the pandemic’s impact on well-being. For Clifton polling outcomes raise questions, but he leaves the research to scientists and hands-on professionals by only suggesting reasons for results. Referencing positive psychology, this book is a trove of relevant data for researchers and practitioners in mental health and human betterment arenas.

Recommended Responses to the Data

To facilitate more effective approaches, Jon Clifton lists actions governments and the private sector can take including some joint initiatives they might organize. Again, informed by the science of positive psychology, behavioral economics, and related disciplines, he describes the methods of the annual Gallup worldwide poll. One issue curiously downplayed, is the well-being impact of growing social and economic inequality. Leaders remain openly blind to this and often the underprivileged miss it. Strikingly, Gallup polls cited in Blind Spot itself, underscore the huge harm to everyone as outlined in the detailed studies charted and discussed in The Spirit Level.

There’s a lot to unpack in this book and much to commend. It’s an easy read, but Blind Spot’s true value is as a reference. Lots of myth busting!.


Clifton, J. (2022). Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It. Washington DC: Gallup Press.

Wilkinson, R and Kate Pickett (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London, New York, Toronto: The Penguin Group.

Brooks, David (2022, October 27). The rising tide of global sadness. New York Times opinion.

Donald O. Clifton. Wikipedia.

Image Credits: Crowd Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash Singapore skyline photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash Busy streets of Rwanda photo by Maxime Niyomwungeri on Unsplash

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