Maeve Dineen: Beware siren voices promising gross domestic happiness
Published 01/02/2010 | 05:00
HAPPINESS, the search for it, the lack of it, and the inability of most of us to find it, is fast becoming a national obsession.
A few weeks ago, I read one of the thousands of new year articles on 'Finding Happiness in 2010', where, as part of the coverage, seven writers revealed what made them happy. They told us about sex, champagne, children, work and Prozac. No one mentioned money.
The search for happiness has now caught the attention of our economists. Not only are the statistical tools of economics surprisingly well suited to unlocking the secrets of happiness, but the research topic is proving to be popular with the public.
The crisis of the past two years has already overturned great swathes of economic doctrine. But many economists, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, believe the time may finally be ripe for the dismal science to let in a bit of happiness "The one-time masters of the universe may need to become masters of self-delusion if they hope to find happiness along with their paychecks," Stiglitz told the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
Researching the economics of happiness, Stiglitz concluded that Gross Domestic Product, which simply adds up everything made within an economy, from widgets to whizzy financial products, at their market value, was an insufficient way to measure the 'health' of a nation and that measures of sustainability and human well-being should be included. His work also suggests that rising national wealth does not necessarily make people more satisfied with their lot.
Higher GDP is associated with higher standards of living, including better healthcare, greater opportunity, lower infant mortality, higher literacy rates and more leisure -- typical characteristics of the "good life". But pursuit of "more" does not always yield "better".
Clearly, it is difficult to compare one person's happiness with another. It can be especially difficult to compare happiness across cultures. However, happiness economists believe they have solved this comparison problem. Cross-sections of large data samples across nations and time demonstrate consistent patterns in the determinates of happiness.
One study found that commuting, housework and too much contact with the boss rated as the least pleasant activities. Sex, relaxing with friends, having lunch with colleagues and the amount of spare time people have, all correlate with happiness. Surprisingly, taking care of children was among the less enjoyable activities, despite people normally reporting that children are the greatest source of joy in their lives.
While money brings about happiness, the rate diminishes the more money you earn. In the wake of the economic crisis, a number of leaders have stressed the need to develop policies that follow value systems that enable citizens to realise the good life, rather than simply maximise growth and profits.
But can happiness be delivered or measured by governments? It is one thing to value happiness personally, but quite another to expect the happiness of a society to be measurable or to respond to policy intervention.
The economics of happiness is on the rise but basing policies on measures of happiness are at best futile, and at worst detrimental to governance. Would you really want your happiness to be in the hands of Brian Cowen?