Sat, Jan 08, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Politicians should consider
the happiness factor

Figures about happiness seem to be as accurate as many of the statistics regularly used by politicians, such as public opinion polls, poverty rates and GDP growth — all of which are riddled with imperfections

By Derek Bok

ILLUSTRATION: KEVIN HSU

In a time of tight budgets and financial crisis, politicians look to economic growth as the centerpiece of their domestic policy programs. GDP is taken to be the leading indicator of national well-being, but as we look ahead to this year and beyond, we should ask ourselves: Is it really wise to accord such importance to growth?

Granted, many studies have confirmed that wealthier nations tend to be happier than poor ones and that rich people are generally more satisfied than their less affluent fellow citizens. Yet other findings from several relatively well-to-do countries, such as South Korea and the US, suggest that people there are essentially no happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite a doubling or quadrupling of average per capita income.

Moreover, in a recent Canadian study, the happiest people turned out to reside in the poorest provinces, such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, while citizens in the richest provinces, notably Ontario and British Columbia, were among the least happy. Since happiness is ultimately what people want the most, while wealth is only a means to that end, the primacy now accorded to economic growth would appear to be a mistake.

What seems clear from such research is that people do quite poorly at predicting what will make them happy or sad. They focus too much on their initial responses to changes in their lives and overlook how quickly the pleasure of a new car, a pay increase or a move to sunnier climes will fade, leaving them no happier than before. It is hazardous, therefore, for politicians simply to rely on opinion polls and focus groups to discover what will truly enhance people’s happiness.

In the findings to date, however, two conclusions have emerged that seem especially useful for policymakers to ponder.

First, most of the things that do bring enduring satisfaction for individuals are also good for other people — strong marriages and close relationships of all kinds, helping others, engaging in civic affairs and effective, honest, democratic government. Therefore, policies that promote individual well-being tend to benefit society as well.

Second, experiences that bring lasting pleasure or unhappiness do not always command a high priority in government circles. For example, three medical afflictions that create especially acute and enduring distress — clinical depression, chronic pain and sleep disorders — are all conditions that can often be treated successfully, to the vast relief of sufferers, but such people are frequently underserved by healthcare systems.

The natural response to all this is to ask whether happiness research is really reliable enough to be used by policymakers. Researchers have paid close attention to this issue and, after much testing, have found that the answers people give to questions about their well-being seem to correspond fairly well to more objective evidence.

People who claim to be happy tend to live longer, commit -suicide and abuse drugs and -alcohol less often, get promoted more frequently by their employers and enjoy more good friends and lasting marriages. Their assessments of their own well-being also align quite closely with the opinions of friends and family members.

So, overall, statistics about happiness seem to be as accurate as many of the statistics regularly used by politicians, such as public-opinion polls, poverty rates or, for that matter, GDP growth — all of which are riddled with imperfections.

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