17 Aug Good bye wealth, hello happiness
Goodbye wealth, hello happiness
August 17, 2007
One of the rising fashions in world affairs is the advance of the so-called “happiness agenda”. It is no longer just a fad in the self-help aisles of the bookshops but is beginning to intrude into the mainstream of politics and public policy around the world.
Happiness studies start with the ancient – and stunningly obvious – fact that money doesn’t make us happy. And they seek to find things that do. The new happiness agenda takes it further by seeking to make it a responsibility of the state.
Not content to leave it to individuals, life coaches and swamis to help us grope our way to greater wellbeing, there is a movement to make it the business of politicians and bureaucrats.
While it was once the province of New Age practitioners, it is now a staple in the business press. The serious American business magazine Forbes last year reported an academic comparison of the happiness of rich, high-powered business executives with the Masai people of East Africa. They didn’t find much difference between people who make $100 million a year and those making $100 a month.
It is long established that rising incomes deliver a diminishing return to happiness. Professor Ruut Veenhoven, a psychologist at Erasmus University in Amsterdam and publisher of the Journal of Happiness Studies, maintains a 90-country happiness database. He says: “Once you reach a reasonable standard of living, about the level of Mexico today, after that point, the growth in wealth doesn’t add to happiness.” Mexico’s per capita income is about $US7000 ($8500), according to the World Bank; Australia’s is five times this level.
This is not a new discovery. What’s new is that while governments have long accepted responsibility for giving their people rising incomes, they have not taken on the task of guaranteeing personal happiness. Not yet.
The Labor Party’s finance spokesman, Lindsay Tanner, author of a book called Crowded Lives, last year likened the advance of the happiness agenda to the environment: “The environment emerged in the ’70s as an issue. It took 30 years ê¢__‘Ô_ to become part of mainstream political decision-making. We are at the early stages of something similar with the issue of happiness and relationships.”
It’s advancing faster than he might have imagined. The leader of Britain’s Tories, David Cameron, is a leading example of the arrival of the happiness agenda into the mainstream: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused on just on GDP, but on GWB – general wellbeing. Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.”
Here we have the heir to Margaret Thatcher, the woman who asserted that “there is no such thing as society”, and he’s advocating the priority of culture and relationships over money and markets. This is revolutionary.
The happiness agenda is capturing the commanding heights of elite opinion. The most popular course at Harvard University is a positive psychology primer taught by Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, who warns Americans of a great “emotional bankruptcy”. Apparently keen to address this looming 21st-century liquidity crisis, the Bank of England has appointed to its advisory board an economist specialising in happiness, David Blanchflower. Are central bankers going to spend less time targeting low inflation and more time targeting personal happiness?
Australia perfectly captures the so-called prosperity paradox – we are beneficiaries of the most successful macroeconomic management in the developed world, yet we seem ripe for a government that might want to promise to supply our need for non-material happiness.
An opinion poll by Ipsos Mackay for the Herald last September asked whether “a government’s prime objective should be achieving the greatest happiness of the people, not the greatest wealth?” The proposition was supported by 77 per cent.
Kevin Rudd seems to be pitching to the happiness agenda. While the Government talks about macroeconomic indicators, Rudd has been talking about kitchen-table indicators. “The statistical averages don’t reflect the day-to-day realities that so many families face,” Rudd says.
While the Howard Government boasts of rising wages, Rudd empathises rising grocery prices. The Government brags about falling unemployment; Rudd sympathises with the problems of child care. The Government struts the GDP growth numbers; Rudd talks about a crisis of housing affordability.
Rudd’s narrative of discontent seems to have developed real resonance with the Australian public, while Howard’s boast that “working families in Australia have never been better off”, while accurate in aggregate, has only rankled.
One of the unexamined consequences of annihilation of the Howard Government at this election would be to give rise to a serious rethinking of the legitimate scope of government responsibility.
The Government has presided over a decade of growth. Unemployment has halved; household wealth has doubled. Real wages are up by one-fifth.
If the Government is thrown out despite delivering the best economic performance in the developed world, this would send a clear message that the electorate’s expectations have gone beyond the traditional economic agenda.
It would invite a redefinition of the responsibilities of the state. It would give the happiness agenda a tremendous boost, and give any new government a licence to delve into our innermost sources of happiness. A wonderful opportunity to fine-tune our wellbeing, or a Pandora’s box of bureaucratic interference in our lives?
Newsweek magazine predicted in May that “the momentum toward a ‘wellbeing state’ seems unstoppable”. If the Howard Government is defeated, Australia would become the lead evidence that the traditional definition of state responsibility for the welfare of its citizens is a thing of the past.
Peter Hartcher is the Herald’s political editor.