Battle over whether money really can buy you happiness

Hong Kong is a world leader in economic wealth but does higher GDP mean anything when it comes to general satisfaction with life?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 2:19am

I was about to wish our readers a prosperous Year of the Snake.

But then I began to have doubts.

Hong Kong already has prosperity aplenty. According to the International Monetary Fund, last year the city enjoyed an income of US$51,000 per head (in purchasing power parity terms). That makes Hong Kong the fifth-wealthiest economy in the world, behind only Qatar, Luxembourg, Singapore and Norway.

When you consider that Hong Kong has no oil or gas and that its population is a third bigger than the others in the top five, that's an impressive level of wealth.

According to a barrage of recent studies by eminent economists, all this prosperity ought to make us happy.

A team from the Wharton School says "richer countries have significantly higher levels of average life satisfaction".

"Income is positively associated with other measures of subjective well-being, including happiness as well as other upbeat emotions," they assert.

Before you protest that GDP per capita is a lousy measure to use because it doesn't take into account inequality of income with an economy, I should point out that economists studying happiness disagree.

"For an economic indicator never intended to assess national well-being, GDP is surprisingly successful in predicting a population's subjective well-being," concluded another team from Jacobs University Bremen in a study published last year.

These findings would appear to contradict the long-standing Easterlin Paradox.

Named after the American economist Richard Easterlin, who published a seminal paper on the economics of happiness back in the 1970s, the paradox holds that contrary to expectations, rising wealth levels in an economy do not lead to greater happiness.

Economists today disagree strenuously. One study published last month by the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation in the Netherlands even declared that "the Easterlin Paradox has become the Easterlin Illusion".

"Economic growth in nations does tend to go with rising happiness," the authors insisted.

However, the 86-year old Easterlin didn't take this assault on his work lying down.

In a paper published last month the University of Southern California professor argued that his critics had misinterpreted the data.

Although he acknowledged that richer economies were on the whole happier than poorer countries, he maintained there was no evidence that economic growth within a country made that country's inhabitants any happier over the long term.

Growth rates may have a short-term impact on happiness. For example, rising unemployment in an economic downturn is usually associated with increased misery.

But these effects are cyclical. "Fluctuations in happiness and income [the short-term movement] go together, but the trends in happiness and income [the long-term movement] do not," Easterlin argued.

Looking at a longer term data series, he maintained there was no relationship at all between rising incomes and greater happiness, either in developed or developing economies.

For example, over the last three decades incomes have grown far faster in Australia than in Denmark, but while the Danes say they have got happier, Australians have grown more miserable.

Then there is China, where real incomes have quadrupled in two decades.

Yet Easterlin points out that the combined evidence of all the "subjective well-being" surveys since 1990 shows that "life satisfaction in China has not improved, and, if anything, may have declined somewhat".

So I'll change my mind. Instead of prosperity, I'd like to wish all our readers an abundance of happiness in the Year of the Snake.