Human nature is inherently complex. We have traits that accentuate the differences between our own personal needs and wants and those of others. We also maintain other forms of disposition that stress societal affinities and what we all have in common. The relative strength of these two contending strands is significantly and constantly influenced by the dominant culture in which we are nurtured.
Unfortunately, modern culture is somewhat lopsided. It feeds our selfish tendencies, encouraging whole generations to raise personal stakes almost to narcissistic levels: top grades, prominent careers, extravagant salaries and desirable partners. This culture of striving has been fruitful in many ways, and humankind has never had it so good.
But this same culture informs us that to do anything worthwhile we have to establish a certain level of status in society; and this requires a portfolio of accomplishments and winning ways how to put ourselves out there. The objective it offers is success compared with other people. But if one is to succeed under such terms and conditions, someone else is doomed to fail. So we have set ourselves up for a zero-sum game: however hard we all try to be better off, we can hardly ever register any significant increase in the collective happiness and well-being of our communities.
Given increasing evidence of this stressful, unsustainable trajectory in human development, there is urgent need for a more inclusive framework of progress. We require concerted action in favour of a gentler culture that supports the altruistic side of humanity. For it is also in our nature to occasionally move out of our egotistical self and feel what others feel and strive for their well-being – as an end in itself, not just as a means to reward ourselves.
We need to promote lifestyles that naturally abound in win-win situations, where people are willing and able to act for the common good – at work, at home and in the community. These are the vital signs of a happy society and they have always been around, in some form or other.
The concept of a gentler culture is ingrained in all the great religions, for instance, but divine command alone is no longer able to convince the masses of the need to escape from the misery of self-absorption. So, more than ever before, we need a supporting act, a more secular act, a science of happiness, which gives us concrete empirical evidence on how we should live and how our policymakers should act on our behalf to create a happier society.
We need not look any further. ‘Happiness economics’ has been established over the past few years at the intersection of economics, psychology, sociology and political science. This new academic science of happiness forms part of a coordinated network of international initiatives which may truly bring about a real paradigm shift. Never before has a ‘post-material’ model, a full re-evaluation of progress, the fostering of a different kind of economy, the possibility of measuring a country’s status with metrics that go beyond GDP, seem so attainable.
Beginning with the early 1970s, Richard Easterlin was the first modern economist to retrace the concept of happiness. In 1974, he observed that the trend line for American happiness has been flat between 1946 and 1970, even though material wealth (GDP per person) grew by 65 per cent over the same period of time.
He went on to find a similar disconnection in other countries as well, and although at any point in time the rich were relatively happier, both among and within nations, over time, the long-term growth rates of happiness and income did not show any significant correlation.
Happiness has been flat… even though material wealth grew 65%
Thus, he went on to postulate that since countries with higher per capita incomes tend to have more stable democracies, better education and health conditions and more secure basic human rights, these same conditions (associated with but distinct to income), may be the agents behind the observed positive connection between income and happiness in the immediate term. This theory is called the ‘Happiness-Income Paradox’ or as it is commonly known, the ‘Easterlin Paradox’.
In the 1980s, Amartya Sen introduced a new discourse on ‘capabilities’, which, unlike ‘commodities’, do not show up in national accounts figures, but they are the concrete doings and beings that make possible the conversion of commodities into quality of life. A few years later, Sen managed, albeit half-heartedly, to bring the idea to fruition with the help of Mahbub ul Haq, a good old friend from the days at university and project leader of the UN Human Development Index (HDI).
Launched in 1990, this simple HDI index was intended as a supplement to GDP with data on life expectancy, literacy and education (figures that were basically already available worldwide but never grouped up as a multivariate index) so as to equip the UN with a better ranking system of countries across the globe. This was ul Haq’s essential contribution; a ‘vulgar’ measure (as later described by Sen due to its limitations), but a better measure of aspects of well-being than pure income.
In reality, Sen’s idea that such sensitive data can be better presented with a dashboard of indicators rather than as a single number in a ranked list, did not fall through the cracks. In 2009, together with economists Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, he was involved in a study commissioned by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy, entitled ‘Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up’.
Adopting a user-friendly, yet challenging rhetoric, the report immediately became a global wonk sensation, advocating for social relations and subjective values about quality of life, as complementary indicators, alongside GDP.
Two years later, in October 2011, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) responded to the call with the unveiling of ‘Your Better Life Index’ – a smart data visualisation technique that synthesises statistics on income, jobs, housing, health, work and life-balance, education, social connections, civic engagement and governance, environment, personal security and subjective well-being, into moving, interactive graphics, à la Hans Rosling.
The OECD index epitomised a legion of indices, ranging from single-issue rankings such as the Happy Planet Index (New Economics Foundation), Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage Foundation) to broader measures of well-being such as the UK’s Legatum Prosperity Index, the EU’s Quality of Life Index and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.
Finally, with these new tools at hand, an explosion of surveys and empirical studies about ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ took off. The accompanying chart depicts a compilation of the development in the number of referenced publications on ‘Google Scholar’ (since the early 1970s), with these two keywords incorporated in the title. It clearly shows a take-off at the turn of the millennium:
In the end, who would have thought that this rediscovery of happiness in economics is today turning out to be not only one of the most thriving research areas in what was once dubbed the ‘dismal science’, but a revolution in the making − with very visible champions and enthusiasts advocating for a gentler culture where happiness of mankind becomes the ultimate common good and its promotion, the overarching goal of public policy.
This article is a stand-alone synthesis of the overarching theme encompassing a three-year research endeavour, entitled ‘The Development of a Wellbeing-in-All-Policies (WiAP) Screening Tool for the Maltese Economy’. While acknowledging the recent discourse on well- being in Malta, spearheaded by the ‘Beyond GDP Project’ under the auspices of the Justice and Peace Commission, and the launch of the ‘Malta Wellbeing Index Project’ by the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, the aim of this newly-launched initiative is to consider, in more conceptual and fundamental ways, how effectively embedding ‘Beyond-GDP indicators’ within the Maltese context can actually lead to a paradigm shift in the framework of public policy.
Ivan Cauchi, senior lecturer, economics and international business, MCAST
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