Mr. Cameron, I do not doubt your sincerity in trying to improve the aggregate wellbeing of the population through the compilation of a "happiness index". My problem is this: many of the priorities of this government, and subsequently its policies, are destined to degrade (unintended I am sure) the happiness level of ordinary Britons.
The Guardian, July 26, reports on a government drive to measure the "country's wellbeing" by asking people how happy they are. This measurement is to be done by the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) based on the question:
"How satisfied are you with your life nowadays, how happy did you feel yesterday, how anxious did you feel yesterday and to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?"
The results of the Survey will be published next July (2012). All of this apparently stems from an idea of a "happiness index" David Cameron had when he was leader of the opposition in 2005. It is a good thing the government is doing this research, but previous research on happiness presented in a paper by Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca, University of Milan (June, 2005), gives some interesting insights which should influence current government policies. The research was based on the question:
"Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy, or not at all happy?"has shown some interesting results:
"In thirty surveys over 25 years (from 1946 to 1970 in the US) per capita real income rose by more than 60 per cent, but the proportion of people who rated themselves as "very happy", "fairly happy" or "not too happy" remained almost unchanged. This finding is applicable to all the OECD countries where the aggregate happiness level has not risen in line with improvement in per capita real income".
"there is a positive and strong correlation between GDP per capita and subjective well being".
The other obvious conclusion to draw is that the increase in wealth did not go to the needy and the poor where it could have made the greatest impact, as the paper identifies. Instead the wealth went to people who were already well off, with the gap between the ultra rich and the very poor now alarmingly wide.
The Guardian, June 23, reported on a speech by Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, made to an audience of leading city investors in which he said:
"It is actually outrageous that last year median earnings for FTSE 100 chief executives rose 32%, whereas the share index rose only 7% - and average employee pay rose by less than 2%, barely half the rate of inflation.... Average pay for the bosses of the top 100 companies has leaped to 120 times that received by an average UK employee from 45 times in 1998".
A government that is genuinely interested in the happiness of its population is one that addresses the wealth gap. This is particularly the case if it reaches a point where the basic needs of large numbers of people are not met, through unemployment, house repossessions and diminishing wages, as is the case in Britain, the US and many other countries in Europe in the current economic climate. Significant improvements in happiness levels could be achieved for a modest increase in the income of the very poor.
The paper identifies that our happiness is not based on the acquisition of wealth but on
"the gap between income and material aspirations. To the extent that aspirations rise together with income, subjective satisfaction may remain unchanged as income rises".The narrower the gap the more satisfied we are and the happier we become. This could be summed up by an old Arabic proverb: "Contentment is an inexhaustible treasure".
We have become consumer junkies seduced by advertising into believing that if only we could have their latest product we would be happy, only to discover that the euphoria is transitory, lasting for only a short period of time. The effect is similar to that of a drug addict, needing another fix when the effects of the first dose have worn off.
The research identifies television as a prime contributor to dissatisfaction, thus negatively influencing our happiness level. It
"creates discontent by bombarding us with images of body shapes, riches and goods we do not have. It does this both in TV drama and in advertisements"
Reaching out to people of other cultures will enhance our self-worth; it will develop and emphasize our empathy with other human beings and will, as a byproduct, improve the level of our happiness. Let us be humble and learn from other societies that are poorer than us, yet seem to attain levels of satisfaction and happiness that are higher than in our societies.
Raw capitalism is a voracious beast, devouring resources at an alarmingly unsustainable rate that is putting the happiness and the wellbeing of ordinary people, and that of future generations, at great peril. The government needs to tame it, and limit its power by laws and regulations. A balance of power needs to be restored between capital and the "moneymen" on one side, and labour, physical and intellectual, on the other. The state should be involved in helping the poor and the needy to attain a basic standard that affords them human dignity compatible with a rich democratic society. Our collective humanity requires us to do that.
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