Low cost of living a key element in happiness

By Chang Kuo-tsai 張國財  / 

Fri, Sep 06, 2013 - Page 8

Are you happy? This question has been widely discussed lately. According to the Gross National Happiness index published by the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, commodity prices are low and purchasing power is high in Taiwan, and Taiwanese are happier than Japanese and South Koreans.

However, according to a non-governmental version of the index published by China Credit Information Service, people in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Bhutan are all happier than people in Taiwan.

The fact is it is quite difficult to objectively evaluate happiness. When a typhoon brings torrential rain, most people would be happy if their homes were not flooded, but it is a feeling that the wealthy, living in their luxurious homes, would never experience. Neither will the rich raise an eyebrow if the price of a typical breakfast increases from NT$50 to NT$60, while ordinary people can only sigh because it makes it that much more difficult to make it through the day.

For high-ranking officials, businesspeople, white-collar workers and privileged groups such as military personnel, civil servants and public school teachers, fuel, electricity and gas price hikes are not a problem. They will keep using their air conditioners, eat their expensive food and buy their brand-name bags — which is why the happiness index remains high among these groups. However, for those who are on the verge of poverty, higher utility prices will mean increases in the prices of daily commodities, making life much more difficult for them.

This is why a survey that includes people in the upper crust of society is not reliable. To get more realistic results, it has to include more people from the base of the pyramid.

For the general public, the fundamental requirements for happiness are low consumer prices and ready access to the basic necessities of life.

The cost of living in Los Angeles is high, but living there during the summer break, I found that a liter of gasoline cost only NT$30, a loaf of whole wheat bread was US$1.25, Super A eggs were US$1.50 a dozen and US-grown rice was NT$20 per 0.6kg at the 168 Market.

In other words, in the US, where the per capita income is 2.5 times higher than in Taiwan, many basic daily necessities are cheaper than here. With that in mind, one wonders how a hard-working Taiwanese could ever manage to be happy.

Chang Kuo-tsai is a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.

Translated by Perry Svensson