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The search for happiness



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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October 7, 2009

LONDON - High moments aside do we know what happiness is? Is the world becoming a happier place? Are we happier than our parent's or grandparent's generation? What could give us a little more happiness?

I recall twenty-five years ago an article on the subject published by Geraldine Norman, the art saleroom correspondent of the London Times. I haven't seen it bettered. She had just been to Africa for her honeymoon and being a rather bookish sort of a girl took with her the Penguin introduction to psychology and books on statistical game theory, anthropology, economics and comparative religion. After all this heavy reading, no doubt interspersed with long walks up the paths that stretch aside the Victoria Falls and, I suppose, some canoodling with her new husband, she came up with six principal factors that appeared to be universal requirements for a happy life:

1) Understanding of your environment and how to control it
2) Social support from family and friends
3) Species drive satisfaction, in particular sex and parental drive
4) Satisfying of drives contributing to physical well-being- eating, sleep, exercise etc.
5) Satisfaction of aesthetic and sensory drives
6) Satisfaction of the exploratory drive - creativity and discovery.

She then weighted these, dividing one hundred points between them, giving the most points to physical well being. "Better red than dead", she wrote at the time of the Vietnam War. Next she looked at individual countries and, on deciding how much they had of each virtue, multiplied the total. In this somewhat arbitrary but engaging way she decided that Botswana, then a ridiculously poor country, scored higher than Britain.

Since then there have been numerous attempts to quantify happiness or, at least, progress. My favourite for the last decade has been the Human Development Index, thought up by the Pakistani economist, the late Mahbub ul Haq and brought up to date every year by the United Nations Development Programme.

Essentially it tries to measure the rate of progress for countries not, as is traditionally done, by looking at national income but by substituting the yardstick of quality of life. Thus momentum in improving life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy and the status of women become the key criteria. Not surprisingly, Canada, Japan and the Scandinavian countries end up trumping the United States, the richest country in terms of average incomes.

Now comes a thoughtful analysis in the current issue of the British journal, Prospect, by an American writer, Robert Wright. Provocatively, he compares happiness in the Third World with that of the rich world. "Indonesian workers want to raise their income by moving from farm fields to Nike factories. Nike customers want, well, they want a shoe that has not just a generic "Air Sole"(old hat) but a "Tuned Air Unit" in the heel and "Zoom Air" in the forefoot.

His thesis is straightforward: "Once a nation achieves a fairly comfortable standard of living, more income brings little, if any, additional happiness." The point where wealth ceases to imply more happiness is around $10,000 per capita annually - roughly where Greece, Portugal and South Korea are today. Therefore, in terms of psychological pay-off, the benefits of globalisation go overwhelmingly to the world's lower classes, nations with a per capita income under $10,000.

Still, he concedes, even in wealthy societies the really affluent are a bit happier even if there is a per capita income level beyond which more money brings "declining utilitarian bang per buck". Even so it raises the questions if making more money improves happiness even a bit why doesn't the U.S. collectively get happier as it gets richer?

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The answer seems to be that what gratifies people at this level is not their absolute income but their ability to point to an improved relative position - I'm better off than Mr. Jones. So in this situation one man's gain is another man's loss. A zero-sum game. Compare this with developing countries where as they become more educated and healthier, they get better nutrition and build, as is usual with economic progress, a more democratic society more disposed to respecting human rights, and they increase their happiness without reducing anyone else's.

Of course, in the mad world we live in, fast economic progress for the poorer nations can at an early stage in development throw up problems that neutralize some of the happiness achieved - pollution, crime, abandoned children and so on. As the already rich nations discovered two hundred years ago, the industrial revolution can be a cruel business. If societies are sensible - as say South Korea, Botswana, Brazil, Malaysia and Taiwan and, under the present government, India - they will learn some lessons from the eighteenth century experience of the rich world - most importantly to favour the development of small farmers, the education of young girls and the concentration of resources in the villages not cities.

That will give them more happiness and it won't cost them very much.


Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
and e-mail:

Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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