The world is going through an interesting time.
We are seeing the uprise of radical groups, rebelling against the growing pains of globalisation. We have seen the unchecked greed of large corporations devastate our economies in the GFC; not to mention the livelihoods of thousands, whose retirement funds were wiped clean. It is a time with much changing, and hence much resistance.
The world is aching from the pains of globalisation and unchecked consumerism, but it doesn't have to.
I recently stumbled upon the World Happiness Report (WHR – ok that might not the best acronym, but get your mind out of the gutter!), which is a report published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network whose goal is to make happiness the "measure of social progress and the goal of public policy." They are concerned with scientifically measuring happiness, creating metrics for national happiness, and then empowering governments to adopt these new metrics rather than old ones.
I'm going to do my best to make this 70 page report as exciting as possible, but regardless how I do, stick with it because there is a lot we can learn from this report. Cutting to the chase then...
The Problem with GDP
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the main metric that every government around the world uses to measure human progress. I imagine the use of this metric was originally adopted in economic circles, because at a high-level it makes sense, as a country advances economically, then the quality of life for everyone increases proportionately.
Before even looking at the accuracy of GDP per capita as an indicator of well-being, the biggest problem this creates globally is that many countries "have achieved economic growth at the cost of sharply rising inequality, entrenched social exclusion, and grave damage to the natural environment."
This sucks! It's the equivalent of reducing National waste in landfills by shipping it off to third-world countries to burn. It doesn't count.
When GDP is the sole focus of governments, then they often make counterintuitive decisions, sacrificing people's well-being, in the name of "progress". Policy changes like "cutting down on big business tax avoidance" might actually reduce GDP, but can increase well-being for the whole nation.
Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a set of aspirational "global goals" to be met by 2030. These goals, (put out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network – same people behind WHR), are an attempt to guide policy decisions in governments around the world towards a more sustainable future.
They cover nearly everything from "No Poverty" to "Quality Education" and a healthy environment.
While you might be thinking, "We started with Happiness and now are trying to solve world peace? Get back on topic!" The connection between them is just around the corner.
Why Happiness is the Best Measure of Progress
So if GDP is not the best way to measure human progress, what is? The answer is slightly metaphysical. It comes down to, "What is the purpose of life?". I explored this issue in a post that you probably didn't read, and came to the same conclusion as the United Nations, the Dalai Lama and many other thinkers; that being Happiness.
If Happiness is the purpose of life, then we should be measuring human progress based on collective happiness. This is exactly what the WHR is trying to do. Based on research, they have chosen several indicators that best reflect social well-being (social happiness). The indicators are:
- GDP per capita
- healthy years of life expectancy
- social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble)
- trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business)
- perceived freedom to make life decisions
- generosity (as measured by recent donations).
Further, WHR shows that there is a positive correlation between a countries ranking on the Sustainable Development Goals Index (SDGI) and the countries Happiness Index, while no positive correlation between Happiness and GDP could be found. You could obviously argue that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy (both the SDGs and the WHR are initiatives by the same organisation), however, all the research that is used to support arguments in WHR is independently done.
Nevertheless, this is a strong argument that countries should be more focused on their SDG index, rather than their GDP. We have to get to a place where we realise that unchecked GDP growth is unrealistic and not necessary. That a country can move forward (in happiness) without growing GDP.
Happiness Inequality: It's a Thing
Even well-to-do, caring people are getting sick of hearing the word "inequality". It seems to become the centre of every debate, whether it be "income inequality", "gender inequality" or "rich-white-family inequality" (that might not be a thing).
Unfortunately there is now one more for you. By comparing yearly score for each country on the Happiness Index, we can see that in the there is a growing trend of inequality in happiness.
The happy are getting happier and the misers more miserable.
The problem with Happiness inequality is that it actually results in a less happy society. The WHR showed that there is a correlation between a countries Happiness inequality index and their Happiness index. Meaning that smaller gaps in happiness is best for society; everyone happy is better than a few "really happy".
The great thing about Happiness inequality, unlike Wealth inequality, is that "increasing the equality of happiness does not in general require transfer, since building happiness for some does not require reduction in the happiness of others". Unlike wealth – which is limited it nature – happiness can be created and spread infinity (corny-ness not intended).
The Greatest Happiness Principle
Stay with me, we're almost there!
In the WHR, Richard Layard advocates the idea of the Greatest Happiness Principle, which some of you may know is the foundations of Utilitarianism. However, Layard reminds us,
"The principle is frequently misunderstood. For example, it does not assume that people are only concerned about their own happiness. On the contrary, if people only pursued their own happiness, this would not produce a very happy society. Instead the greatest happiness principle exhorts us to care passionately about the happiness of others."
The principle can be summed up as:
- Happiness is the purpose of life, and should be the measure of progress.
- Government's sole responsibility is the "greatest happiness possible"
- Our responsibility as citizens is therefore an obligation to spread happiness.
- Happiness equality trumps all - reduction of misery is better than increase in happiness.
This principle of happiness reminds me of my own personal manifesto for happiness which I share in my upcoming book.
- I have the right to happiness
- Therefore, everyone has the right to happiness
- Therefore, I have the obligation to spread happiness (love)
In a time of growing prejudice and isolation, Happiness is the best way of uniting our world in hopes of a more peaceful planet.
"The greatest happiness principle has a universal appeal. It has the capacity to inspire, by mobilising the benevolent part of every human being. In the language of Jews, Christians and Muslims, it embodies the commandment to 'Do as you would be done by', and to 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. In the language of Hinduism and Buddhism, it embodies the principle of compassion—that we should in all our dealings truly wish for the happiness of all of those we can affect, and we should cultivate in ourselves an attitude of unconditional benevolence. ... The fact is that we have two natures, one selfish and one altruistic, and it is the function of our ethical culture to promote the altruist within us over the egotist."
We need Secular Organisations Dedicated to Good-Living
In a final attempt to mobilise, Layard reminds us that in our coming secular age, we need to still preserve and nurture the positive aspects that religion provided in times past. "We live in an increasingly irreligious age, but we have to ensure that it becomes more, and not less, ethical."
A big hurdle in the coming decade will be how effectively we create an ethical substitution for religion. "Churches, mosques and temples are open to all and their message is universal—it relates to every aspect of life and provides a sense of meaning, uplift and connection. We need equivalent secular organisations."
What can You Do?
1. You can share this article with your friends – or if your friends "get off" on reading scientific papers, share the worldhappiness.report directly.
2. Next time a friend references the GDP of a country, ask them what their SDG Index is instead? If your friends don't ever talk about GDP, then you need to find yourself some more pretentious friends.
3. Subscribe to my newsletter to get brain-bending pieces like this delivered straight to your inbox.
World Happiness Report Snippets (for the eager reader):
- "Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy."
- "World Happiness Day is March 20th" – put it in your calendar!
- Factors of well-being – "GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations). Differences in social support, incomes and healthy life expectancy are the three most important factors"
- "Many countries in recent years have achieved economic growth at the cost of sharply rising inequality, entrenched social exclusion, and grave damage to the natural environment"
- "The evidence suggests that indeed all three dimensions of sustainable development—economic, social, and environmental— are needed to account for the cross-country variation in happiness."
- "Cantril ladder question: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”"
- "Subjective well-being encompasses three different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride), and negative ones (pain, anger, worry). While these aspects of subjective well-being have different determinants, in all cases these determinants go well beyond people’s income and material conditions... All these aspects of subjective well-being should be measured separately to derive a more comprehensive measure of people’s quality of life and to allow a better under- standing of its determinants (including people’s objective conditions)."
- "Both types of comparison showed the effects of income on the happiness answers to be less significant than on satisfaction with life or the Cantril ladder."
- Arguments against Hedonic Treadmill
- "Third, even though individual-level partial adaptation to major life events is a normal human response, there is very strong evidence of continuing influence on well-being from major disabilities and unemployment, among other life events."
- "Fourth, and especially relevant in the global context, are studies of migration showing migrants to have average levels and distributions of life evaluations that resemble those of other residents of their new countries more than of comparable residents in the countries from which they have emigrated.17 This confirms that life evaluations do depend on life circumstances, and are not destined to return to baseline levels as required by the set point hypothesis."
- "These twin facts – that life evaluations vary much more than do emotions across countries, and that these life evaluations are much more fully explained by life circumstances than are emotional reports– provide for us a sufficient reason for using life evaluations as our central measure for making international comparisons."
- "There is now research showing that levels of trust and social capital in the Fukushima region of Japan were sufficient that the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 actually led to increased trust and happiness in the region"
- "All of the other regions show significant increases in well-being inequality"
- "Increasing the equality of happiness does not in general require transfer, since building happiness for some does not require reduction in the happiness of others"
- "The [Greatest Happiness] principle is frequently misunderstood. For example, it does not assume that people are only concerned about their own happiness. On the contrary, if people only pursued their own happiness, this would not produce a very happy society. Instead the greatest happiness principle exhorts us to care passionately about the happiness of others. It is only if we do so that true progress (as we have defined it) can occur."
- "We live in an increasingly irreligious age, but we have to ensure that it becomes more, and not less, ethical."
- "Many of these ideas are highly individualistic, with an excessive emphasis on competition and on personal success as the key goal in life. In this view each person’s main obligation is to themselves. An extreme proponent of this view is the writer Ayn Rand, who became the favourite guru of the U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. In this world individuals do of course collaborate sometimes, but only when it is in their own individual interest. There is no concept of the common good, and life is largely a struggle for places on the ladder of success. But such a struggle is a zero-sum game, since if one person rises another must fall. In such a world it is impossible that all should progress. Instead, if all are to progress, it has to be through a positive-sum game where success for one brings success for others."
- "The greatest happiness principle has a universal appeal. It has the capacity to inspire, by mobilising the benevolent part of every human being. In the language of Jews, Christians and Muslims, it embodies the commandment to 'Do as you would be done by', and to 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. In the language of Hinduism and Buddhism, it embodies the principle of compassion—that we should in all our dealings truly wish for the happiness of all of those we can affect, and we should cultivate in ourselves an attitude of unconditional benevolence. Is there any prospect that we can achieve such a caring way of life? Many people are skeptical. They believe that human nature is inherently selfish and we should just accept that fact. After all, it is the fittest who survive, and those must be the people who put No. 1 first. But this crude form of Darwinism is quite contrary to the modern understanding of human nature and of human evolution, since it is the human instinct to cooperate which has given humans their extraordinary power over most other vertebrate species. The fact is that we have two natures, one selfish and one altruistic, and it is the function of our ethical culture to promote the altruist within us over the egotist."