Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Happy world

What makes the people of a country happy? What factors are common in creating happiness? What policies can public officials pursue to help their people be happy?

These are some of the questions examined in the first “World Happiness Report” from the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The report (download the PDF) was commissioned by the United Nations for its second United Nations Conference on Happiness. According to the press release, the report “reflects a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness and absence of misery as criteria for government policy.”

The media release also says:
The report shows that, where happiness is measured by how happy people are with their lives:
  • Happier countries tend to be richer countries. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.
  • Over time as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (like for example, the United States). On average, the world has become a little happier in the last 30 years (by 0.14 times the standard deviation of happiness around the world).
  • Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.
  • Behaving well makes people happier.
  • Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.
  • Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children.
  • In advanced countries, women are happier than men, while the position in poorer countries is mixed.
  • Happiness is lowest in middle age.
There’s something in this report for everyone, regardless of the political spectrum, and much of the report cuts across traditional ideological divides (and I’m least happy about the last one…). This report, taken as a whole, could help people think differently, and not just reflexively according to their partisan assumptions.

Still, there’s much to reinforce what critics like me have been saying: The focus on growth in GDP alone is wrong and self-defeating. The United States has enjoyed big increases in both GDP and personal income over the decades, but the happiness of its people remains, stubbornly, almost unchanged. Similarly, New Zealand ranks higher than Australia, despite the Aussies enjoying incomes up to 30% higher than those received by similar workers in New Zealand.

This says to me that the current National Party-led Government’s single-minded focus on growing GDP alone, at the expense of social cohesion and community, is completely the wrong direction, and their continued single-minded pursuit of that goal almost certainly will, over time, greatly reduce the happiness of the New Zealand people. If they were right, New Zealand’s happiness score should be far below that of Australia. To real people, all that glitters is not gold; the National Party needs to learn that.

Still, it’s also clear that for people to be happy, they need some economic well-being. Finding the right balance between pursuit of economic growth and the happiness of the people is difficult; this report shows why it’s important to try.

The top ten happiest countries, based on aggregate rankings: 1. Denmark, 2. Finland, 3. Norway, 4.Netherlands, 5. Canada, 6. Switzerland, 7. Sweden, 8. New Zealand, 9. Australia, 10. Ireland. The United States is at 11 and the United Kingdom is at 18.

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