Government should focus on social happiness

By Tu Jenn-hwa 杜震華  / 

Mon, Mar 26, 2018 - Page 6

Many countries have experienced a long period of continuous economic and income growth, but experts have found that the public sense of happiness has not increased at the same rate. The reason is that lifestyles change with economic development and such changes bring negative developments that offset the happiness brought by increased incomes.

A government’s ultimate goal, then, should be to enhance the sense of happiness among the public, rather than focusing on economic growth. In other words, economic growth is a “necessary condition” of happiness, but not a “sufficient condition”; having more money does not necessarily translate to more happiness.

Many advanced nations are making a “happiness index” an important annual evaluation target, using it as an important reference when making policy.

Some international polling companies, such as Gallup Inc, are conducting opinion polls and surveys to rank the overall happiness of nations and the results are drawing ever more attention. Taiwanese media have started to put together a Taiwanese happiness index, which is taken seriously by local governments.

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network has published a World Happiness Report annually since 2012. This year’s report has been widely reported, because Taiwan is ranked as the 26th-happiest nation in the world.

Some Internet users have voiced doubts about the ranking: How could Taiwan perform so well given the stagnant domestic economy and the division between the political camps?

The report is a collaborative research project conducted by three internationally renowned economists: John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs.

John Helliwell, previously cochair of Harvard University’s Canada Program and now professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia, has spent many years studying national happiness.

Richard Layard is professor at the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He served as a consultant in former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet and is known in Taiwan for his book Happiness: Lessons from a new science, translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan in 2006.

Jeffrey Sachs is legendary for his speedy promotion at Harvard University, where he was promoted from the position of assistant professor of economics to a full professorship with tenure in only three years at the age of 28.

He served as director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University from 2002 to 2016 and has been an adviser to renowned international organizations, such as the World Bank and IMF.

A report directed by these three prestigious academics deserves public attention.

Using Gallup poll data, the study ranks the happiness of each country or economic entity based on the average “subjective well-being” recorded over three consecutive years. This year’s ranking is based on the averaged samples of 156 nations recorded from 2015 to last year as part of the Gallup World Poll program.

Most of the top-ranking nations are so-called advanced or developed nations, such as North and West European, and North American countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

While Taiwanese media have paid much attention to Taiwan’s ranking, as it is the highest ranked Asian nation and moved up seven positions from last year, very little has been done to look into the reasons for this improvement.

Quite a few nations have happiness scores similar to Taiwan’s, and the nation’s “happiness” dropped last year compared with 2016. Some nations are performing better than the report suggests and their low rankings should be attributed to the progress made not being large enough to compensate for the average regression in previous years.

Singapore dropped from 26th place last year to 34th place, while Thailand dropped from 32th to 46th place.

The report identifies GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity, average life expectancy, social support, social freedom, generosity and confidence in the government measured as absence of corruption as the six key variables contributing to a nation’s happiness.

The greatest difference between these variables and earlier measurements is that they show that in addition to income, social support networks are crucial to happiness.

In addition, the level of freedom when making choices in life, such as about marriage or occupation, also reflects the social respect individuals enjoy, which is another important factor in determining happiness.

Social support, social freedom, generosity — these are three new parameters that differ from those used in previous measurements of happiness, and they help explain the higher rankings of many less-developed Latin American nations, such as Mexico, which placed 24th, Costa Rica at 13th, Chile at 25th and Panama at 27th place.

If the government considers helping people to become happier in terms of social well-being its raison d’etre, then its policymaking should be guided by the six key variables identified by the UN as essential contributing factors to a nation’s happiness.

Tu Jenn-hwa is a professor in Chinese Culture University’s English Program of Global Business.

Translated by Chang Ho-ming