By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
Should nations be judged by how happy their population is? Should government policy aim at increasing the nation’s happiness? Currently, most countries aim to increase the wealth of the nation generally measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Does the happiness of a people rise over time with rising affluence? Many surveys and studies have shown that this is not the case. For example, America’s average buying power has almost tripled since the 1950’s while self-reported happiness has remained almost unchanged. Similar results prevail in other affluent countries. Affluent countries have not gotten much happier as they have grown richer.
Psychologists, economists and the emerging science of happiness have investigated this surprising phenomenon. One explanation is that humans are adept at turning what were once luxuries into necessities. For example, radios, televisions, refrigerators, electricity, indoor toilets, etc., are now commonplace. Another persistent phenomenon is the constant creation of new material “wants” by advertising, a business of around $500 billion a year.
For rich, money diminishes in value
As people become richer, extra money has a decreasing value. In the language of economists, this is known as the “diminishing marginal utility of income.” In plain English, $1,000 for a poor person means much more than $1,000 for a millionaire.
For an impoveraged society, the focused quest for material gain makes a lot of sense. Higher household income generally results in improvements in the life conditions of the poor. It means more adequate food, access to health care, safe water and sanitation. As incomes rise from very low levels, well-being improves. The poor report rising satisfaction with their lives as their meager income increases.
Many people agree that societies should increase the happiness of their citizens. Yet, many believe that happiness is too subjective to be objectively measured. Studies conclude that while happiness is subjective it can be objectively measured, assessed and correlated with observable brain function. Physically, happiness is created by four different brain chemicals; endomorphin, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.
In 1972 the King of Bhutan, a tiny and poor Himalayan kingdom, grew tired of countries being measured by GDP and introduced the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a guide for public policy. Efforts to put this idea on the global agenda ultimately led to the UN declaring March 20 the International Day of Happiness. Further, it initiated the yearly World Happiness reports ranking countries as to the happiness of their population. The rankings are based first on asking respondents to rate their own lives on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst and 10 the best. Then, each country score is broken down into 6 factors: level of GDP, healthy life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and absence of corruption in government and business. Some of the 2017 rankings, according to the UN’s 2017 World Happiness Report, by Richard Layard, are: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, and Canada.
Some other rankings; 11 Israel, 14 USA, 49 Russia, 51 Japan, 79 China.
Social relationships offer wealth
Human relationships are the most important external factor affecting happiness. The extend to which the country’s inhabitants trust each other turns out to be very important.
Some have critiqued the happiness agenda, claiming that it encourages the idea that happiness is mostly an internal psychological state, something we are responsible for creating for ourselves, as opposed to something that emerges from the objective conditions of our lives. Happiness is then not seen as a product of the society we live in. In fact, the 2017 UN report emphasizes the social foundation of happiness.
A more serious critique about the concentration on happiness is that there is more to life than being happy. What one researcher has said is that what sets human beings apart from other animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, about 4 out 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose or a sense of what makes their life meaningful.
While this critique is powerful, it raises serious questions. It leaves out the morality of what some people find meaningful. Some people’s meaningful goals are to our view a moral disaster. The Nazis had a goal meaningful to them but monstrous to us. The talk about meaning, to have meaning, must involve ethics.
How to live, to find purpose, has been a quest going back to ancient times. That conversation will go on. From our point of view, setting social policies to make people’s lives happier is a worthwhile goal.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld is an IHEU representative to the UN and Dr. Reba Goodman is a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. Special thanks to Charlene Nicole Fulmore, assistant to Dr. Goodman.