Recently came across the The United Nations General Assembly second annual World Happiness Report, measuring happiness and well-being in countries around the world to help guide public policy. Denmark topped the list of the happiest nations, ousting last year’s winner, Iceland. Denmark was followed by Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden – New Zealand comes in at 13th place. Below is an extract and a graph showing the happiness ranking.
In an impoverished society, the focused quest for material gain as conventionally measured typically makes a lot of sense. Higher household income (or higher Gross National Product per capita) generally signifies an improvement in the life conditions of the poor. The poor suffer from dire deprivations of various kinds: lack of adequate food supplies, remunerative jobs, access to health care, safe homes, safe water and sanitation, and educational opportunities. As incomes rise from very low levels, human well-being improves. Not surprisingly, the poor report a rising satisfaction with their lives as their meager incomes increase. Even small gains in a household’s income can result in a child’s survival, the end of hunger pangs, improved nutrition, better learning opportunities, safe childbirth, and prospects for ongoing improvements and opportunities in schooling, job training, and gainful employment.
The paradox that Easterlin noted in the U.S. was that at any particular time richer individuals are happier than poorer ones, but over time the society did not become happier as it became richer. One reason is that individuals compare themselves to others. They are happier when they are higher on the social (or income) ladder. Yet when everybody rises together, relative status remains unchanged. A second obvious reason is that the gains have not been evenly shared, but have gone disproportionately to those at the top of the income and education distribution. A third is that other societal factors – insecurity, loss of social trust, a declining confidence in government – have counteracted any benefits felt from the higher incomes. A fourth reason is adaptation: individuals may experience an initial jump in happiness when their income rises but then at least partly return to earlier levels as they adapt to their new higher income.
These phenomena put a clear limit on the extent to which rich countries can become happier through the simple device of economic growth. In fact, there are still other general reasons to doubt the formula of ever- rising GNP per person as the route to happiness. While higher income may raise happiness to some extent, the quest for higher income may actually reduce one’s happiness. In other words, it may be nice to have more money but not so nice to crave it. Psychologists have found repeatedly that individuals who put a high premium on higher incomes generally are less happy and more vulnerable to other psychological ills than individuals who do not crave higher incomes. Aristotle and the Buddha advised humanity to follow a middle path between asceticism on the one side and craving material goods on the other.
A further huge problem is the persistent creation of new material “wants” through the incessant advertising of products using powerful imagery and other means of persuasion. Since the imagery is ubiquitous on all of our digital devices, the stream of advertising is more relentless than ever before. Advertising is now a business of around $500 billion per year. Its goal is to overcome satiety by creating wants and longings where none previously existed. Advertisers and marketers do this in part by preying on psychological weaknesses and unconscious urges. Cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, and trans-fats all cause cravings if not outright addictions. Fashions are sold through increasingly explicit sexual imagery. Product lines are generally sold by associating the products with high social status rather than with real needs.