The smile curve

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am

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 an article on the subject published 25 years ago 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 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 alongside 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:

Understanding of your environment and how to control it;

Social support from family and friends;

Species-drive satisfaction, in particular sex and parental drive;

Satisfying of drives contributing to physical well-being - eating, sleep, exercise and the like;

Satisfaction of aesthetic and sensory drives; and

Satisfaction of the exploratory drive - creativity and discovery.

She then weighted these, dividing 100 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 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,' he writes. '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 US$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 US$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 question that, if making more money improves happiness, even a bit, why doesn't the US collectively get happier as it gets richer? 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, have better nutrition and build - as is usual with economic progress - a more democratic society more disposed to respecting human rights, 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 neutralise some of the happiness achieved - pollution, crime, abandoned children, and so on. As the already-rich nations discovered 200 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 18th-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 villages, not cities. That will give them more happiness and it won't cost them very much.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist