Material gain won’t fix unhappy planet
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – The United Nations has released its World Happiness Report, making the case for a more sophisticated definition of national success.
Sep 12 2013. By: Carol Goar
Western policy-makers scoffed when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutanannounced to the world that he was developing a gross national happiness index. He would use it, not the conventional gross national product, as his country’s principal indicator of progress. He would strive to improve the collective well-being of his people, not just increase their economic output.
The global intelligentsia dismissed the king’s development philosophy as charmingly naïve.
But outlandish ideas have a way of catching on. Measuring quality of life, not just material gain, made sense to a lot of people. Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Senchampioned the initiative. Number crunchers came up with methodologies. Think-tanks explored the policy implications.
Two years ago, the quest for a better yardstick of success found its way to the United Nations. It declared “the pursuit of happiness a fundamental goal” and called on member nations to incorporate measures of well-being into their growth and development policies.
This week, the second World Happiness Report was released. The 156-page document, edited by John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, is surprisingly detailed and practical. Anyone expecting an aspirational treatise will be disappointed. Anyone seeking to understand why some nations are chronically miserable and others roll with the punches will be enlightened, if not satisfied.
The research team worked out of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, where Helliwell is a senior fellow. It analyzed data from 150 countries. The participants were asked two sets of questions. The first probed their emotional state: Do you laugh a lot? Are you happy? Do you enjoy life? Do you worry? Are you sad? Are you angry? The second examined how they felt about their lot, their life and their prospects.
Their answers were cross-referenced with their country’s economic social, political, environmental and religious profiles.
What the researchers discovered was that six factors — per capita income, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, having someone to count on in times of trouble, and personal generosity — accounted for three-quarters of the variation in national happiness.
The second point that jumped out of the data was that mental illness — a low priority for most governments — was the single most important cause of global unhappiness.
Their third observation was that life satisfaction rose in Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa and fell in the Middle East and Western Europe.
To present their findings in an easy-to-understand package, they produced a global quality-of-life ranking. The top five countries were Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden (Canada placed sixth). The bottom five were Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Benin and Togo.
The United States ranked 17th, Britain 22nd, Japan 43rd and Russia 68th.
There were a few anomalies they could not explain.
- No country with a population over 50 million made the top 10. This suggested a nation’s size works against the well-being of its citizens. But the researchers could find no evidence to support this hypothesis.
- There were sharp differences among the four countries hardest hit by the European debt crisis. Greeks were devastated. Spaniards and Italians were despondent. Portuguese attitudes were almost unaffected. Clearly something other than financial hardship — which the researchers could not pinpoint or quantify — was at play.
- Several countries widely regarded as hellholes — Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone — fared surprisingly well in the happiness rankings. Conversely, a few countries thought to be quite livable — Hungary, Armenia, Bulgaria — had unexpectedly low scores.
The sweep of the report precluded specific policy prescriptions. But the authors did urge governments around the world to:
- Pay more attention to mental illness. Not only is it a cause of misery, it lowers productivity, reduces income, fractures relationships and prevents people from contributing to the wider community. Even in rich countries, two-thirds of mental illness goes untreated.
- Listen to the public. There is a serious misalignment between what matters to citizens and what motivates policy-makers.
- Finally, don’t assume cynicism is permanent. It fades when people see a way forward, see their government making headway and see their lives getting better.
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