June 11, 2011

CHINA: Health, wealth, happiness and how to gauge progress

SHANGHAI / The Shanghai Daily / Columnists / Opinion / June 11, 201

By Wang Yong

IF people were happy for the same or similar core reasons across the globe, could happiness ratings indicate human advancement much as GDP measures economic strength?


Economist Carol Graham prompts the reader to ponder these profound issues in her 2010 book "Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires."

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the University of Maryland, Graham conducted extensive surveys in Latin America, Central Asia and Afghanistan to support her analysis of what she calls "the economics of happiness." She also used data on happiness in OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.

Graham does believe that people and nations can be happy for the same or similar reasons. For example, she says, health influences joy worldwide even more than money. She also observes that although wealthy people and nations are generally happier than poorer ones, that's true only to a certain extent: after a point, more money doesn't make you happier.

Her conclusion comes at a critical moment when the world needs a new narrative beyond consumerism to move on. Consumerism running amok has caused financial and real estate bubbles worldwide - from the West to the East - and created millions of miserable souls whose level of happiness hews to material gains and losses.

It would be forward-looking if global public policy makers could heed Graham's call and rethink the current growth pattern that enshrines conspicuous consumption of things and maximum accumulation of capital.

However, while Graham points to the right direction, a few concepts need clarification before the world can navigate on her chartered course.

First, even if health makes most people happier than money does, health-based happiness ratings might not necessarily indicate human advancement. What if everyone is content in his or her own health while happily ignores that of others?

We can't proclaim human advancement simply because a nation and its people are healthy and thus, presumably, happy. We must see if this nation and its people take pleasure in dumping health hazards like medical wastes on other countries or public domains.

Second, what is the certain point after which more money doesn't make you happier?

Basic needs

"After basic needs are met, other factors, such as rising aspirations, relative income differences and the security of gains, become increasingly important, in addition to income," says Graham.

Elaborating on the Easterlin paradox, she says, once people have the vital necessities of life, like food and shelter, their rising aspirations value relative wealth, not absolute wealth. But what are the "basic needs" or the vital necessities of life?

To me, clean air and water, a quiet place to be, and affordable medical care are "basic needs," but to many young people today, a car, a TV, an iPhone and iPad will be as vital. (See Xinhua article on someone selling his kidney to buy an iPad.)

If we insist that there's no happiness below a certain point of wealth, we will always be able to find an excuse for our failure to be happy.

The word "subsistence" comes to mind. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary, "subsistence" means "the state of having just enough money or food to stay alive." Other definitions include supporting oneself at a minimum level.

But isn't being alive and kicking one of the happiest things under the sun? Yan Hui (521-481 BC), one of Confucius' outstanding disciples, was quite happy with a spoonful of water, a mouthful of food, and a shabby shelter, although his neighbors felt pity for him.

Fundamentally, happiness is something that flows from your simple heart, not from your shining house.

As Richard Layard, author of "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science," puts it, human nature doesn't fit easily into an economic formula, be it "subsistence" or "basic needs." Some elements of human nature, he says, have nothing to do with economic success.

Graham is right to say that money doesn't buy happiness, but for happiness ratings to indicate human advancement, we need to dig deeper into the spiritual world of man, especially his capacity to sacrifice for the common good.

It's acceptable to replace "money worship" with "happiness worship," but there are at least two kinds of happiness that are antithetical to human advancement: happiness derived from selfishness or egoism, and happiness attached to material gains.

Fleeting pleasure

Material gains represent a kind of pleasure. Pleasure is fleeting. To Aristotle and most ancient sages, happiness was not a matter of pleasure, but of morality.

Martin Seligman, author of "Authentic Happiness: Using The New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment," says that even extreme poverty has little correlation with unhappiness. On the contrary, he observes, people whose main goal is money tend to be very unhappy.

Carol Graham correctly notes that the world should promote happiness and therefore human advancement.

But happiness is not conducive to human advancement if happy people worldwide are only content with their own happiness.

Copyright © 2001-2011 Shanghai Daily Publishing House