Monday, June 11, 2012

Measuring our misery.

Can South Africa join the global move to focus policies on life satisfaction and happiness?

The “self-evident” inalienable right to “liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the best known phrases in political science. It is contained in the American declaration of Independence and is a preponderant theme in most modern state constitutions, including our own.

It is perhaps stating the obvious that if society cannot provide its citizens with an acceptable degree of life satisfaction, then that society has failed. Likewise, if economics cannot create or promote that level of life satisfaction for most if not all of its citizens, then it too has failed.

It has been noted that the author of the American declaration, founding father Thomas Jefferson, had more in mind than some wooly phrase. He believed that happiness should be a measurable outcome of government and its ultimate test of legitimacy and justification. Today, more than 200 years later, we know that measuring happiness is not so easy. The word “happiness” itself is ambiguous and open to individual interpretation. There’s also little scientific clarity in the distinction between concepts such as life satisfaction, quality of life, well-being, happiness, joy, contentment and serenity.

The complexities are dealt with in the first comprehensive “World Happiness Report” compiled by American academics John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeff Sachs. Perhaps defending the 158 page report’s own ambiguity, it says: “We increasingly understand that we need a very different model of humanity, one in which we are a complicated interplay of emotions and rational thought, unconscious and conscious decision-making, “fast” and “slow” thinking.” But they believe that it makes sense “to pursue policies to raise the public’s happiness as much as it does to raise the public’s national income.”

And this is happening. There’s been an explosion in the last decade or so of authoritative research related to happiness including the Gallup World Poll, the OECD Better Life Index, Adrian White’s pioneering Life Satisfaction Index, the World Values Survey, the European Social Survey, and the Legatum Prosperity Index. The research has started to impact on policy thinking such as in Britain which has instructed its official statistics service to start recording life satisfaction data. The first results are expected this year. The small kingdom of Bhutan has for years had its main focus on a measurement called Gross National Happiness and has hosted a United Nations Conference on promoting the measurement above the current focus on wealth and income measurements. Prime Minister Jigmy Y. Thinley sees Bhutan “at the forefront of a growing movement that intends radically to change global economics, politics and business practices by emphasizing happiness and well-being rather than growth”.

This, of course, raises the question whether national prosperity guarantees life satisfaction and poverty guarantees gross national misery. Or simply, does money buy happiness?

It’s a thesis that has occupied economics for centuries. Up until recently, the Easterlin Paradox denied the link between prosperity and happiness. Its author, Richard Easterlin found that in international comparisons, average reported level of happiness did not vary much with national income per person, and while income per person rose steadily in the United States between 1946 and 1970, average reported happiness showed no long-term trend and declined between 1960 and 1970.

We also have examples such as Bhutan with an average per capita income of less than $6 per day, ranking 8th on White’s Life Satisfaction index, compared with the United States ranking only 23rd, despite being one of the richest countries in the world.

But the weight of evidence is supporting at least some link between prosperity and national life satisfaction. Perhaps Nobel Economics Laureate, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s assertion that income may not promote life satisfaction or happiness, but that a lack of it, or poverty, certainly detracts from it, is about as close to an answer as we will get – vague though it may be. He cites the Gallup research which showed a progressive increase in life satisfaction for Americans earning up to $60,000 per year, but an absolute flat line for anything above that.

As with anything human, we are still a long way off from finding absolutes in these measurements, if we ever can. Part of the link between prosperity and happiness could be explained by the fact that virtually all of the research and baskets of measurements include derivatives which are dependent on national wealth, such as education and national health services. More sinister though is the possible role of the growth and spread of consumerism, income disparities, competitiveness and comparisons, all of which would certainly impact on individual assessments of happiness.

This may explain why the United States, which is 1st in the recent OECD ranking of personal incomes and personal wealth, comes 12th in life satisfaction. Denmark is again the highest, as it has been for some years and in other global indices such as Gallup and White. One explanation for Danish contentment is a low level of expectations and low competiveness. Still, they are amongst the wealthiest people in the world, ranking 17th on the OECD measurement. In life Satisfaction, Norway ranks 2nd, followed by the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Israel, Finland and Australia in the top 8. The Better Life Index covers 35 developed OECD member countries.

Extrapolating absolutes from the rankings is risky, but it certainly will make champions of mixed economies happy to know that if life satisfaction is a priority, then relatively high levels of government involvement especially in education and health services are needed. Compared with the United States, Holland has a very high level of government intervention in its economy, so do most of the others in the top five.

So where does South Africa fit in? By most accounts we are a rather miserable lot!

Most of the surveys tend to be dated because of the time needed to do them and their frequency. Gallup, for example, surveys more than half a million people in more than 150 countries.

Its latest survey ranks South Africa’s life satisfaction 73rd out of 155. The percentage thriving was 21, while 71 per cent said they were struggling and 8% said they were suffering. Some years earlier, Adrian White’s rankings put the country at 109th of 178 measured.

We clearly have a very long way to go before we could even remotely think of switching national policy priority to life satisfaction. Unemployment, poverty, low levels of education, poor national health access, and income disparities are all obvious detractors from life satisfaction. There’s also not much hope of getting out of this malaise. The Legatum Prosperity Index, which measures a country’s overall ability to foster the drivers of prosperity, ranks us 69th out of 110 countries.

Our national psyche, our so-called “robust debate”, racial, cultural and political tensions, income disparities and more recently even art-work, all undermine any serious attempts at addressing life dissatisfaction. We need to ask ourselves if Bhutan citizens can be amongst the happiest people in the world on less than $6 per day, why can’t we at least lift our mood on 3 ½ times that? Perhaps this is something the proposed Social Cohesion Summit on what it means to be a South African should be looking at.

We can at least explore other measurements that reflect the national mood to add to the array that Stats S.A. is measuring regularly. The world is affirming more clearly today American Senator Robert Kennedy’s questioning of Gross Domestic Product as the flagship of economic policy. “It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In the meantime, there are things that life satisfaction gurus tell us we can do to at least improve our individual life satisfaction: get more sunlight; go for a brisk walk; act with energy; listen to an upbeat song; do things and keep things tidy. I am not sure if these things work. What I can say is that their opposites certainly do not!

We cannot rely on others, including governments to ensure our life satisfaction. It is as much a question of choice as it is of circumstance.

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