Winners and losers in happiness stakes

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Many surveys show that happiness amongst citizens of various nations differs significantly. This week, John reviews Richard Layard’s new book which examines the science of happiness and its relation to government policies.

The fascinating new book* by Richard Layard, the British economist, argues that we should make happiness, not growth, the object of our economic policies. At first sight, there is not a lot of difference – the countries with the highest productivity are also the happiest. But on closer inspection, there are interesting differences.

People in rich countries are generally happier than people in poor countries. But once basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are more or less universally met – higher gross domestic product does not seem to make societies happier. All affluent countries are rather happy. Within this group, the Danes and the Dutch are at the top and the French and Italians at the bottom but the differences are not large. A generous welfare system does not seem to fulfil either the fears of the right or the hopes of the left. The best assessment is that welfare adds happiness if, but only if, most people believe the system is fair.

Can such surveys overcome variations in language and culture? Only the most sensitive of linguists could tell whether someone who is asked in Norwegian whether they are happy hears the same question as someone who is addressed in Hindi. But despite their country’s joyless reputation, the multilingual Swiss are happy and their different linguistic groups are more or less equally heureux, frölich and contento. We should probably believe what people tell us.

Americans are expected to be happy – the constitution mandates it – while Swedish culture is notoriously gloomy, but Swedes claim to be happier than Americans. Perhaps pursuit is not the best route to happiness. John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian, concluded towards the end of his not very happy life, that “those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness”. So policies to promote happiness should not begin by asking voters what would make them happy: we would do better to observe what happens in practice.

States with dreadful governments are mostly unhappy. Countries with authoritarian regimes such as Belarus and Zimbabwe register low scores. The nastiest regimes of all, such as those of North Korea and Myanmar, do not allow independent surveys: nor is it likely that their cowed population would give truthful answers. The former communist countries always did badly in the happiness leagues but those that have made a successful transition to democracy have leaped ahead. Little Slovenia, the Switzerland of the Dolomites, is now one of the happiest countries in the world.

People who say that video recorders are more important than fair trials and free speech are just wrong. Still, richer countries tend to be happier and, within a country, richer people tend to be happier. Since people care a lot about their relative income, equality adds to happiness. But in a subtle way: we compare ourselves to people like us, we envy the neighbours rather than Bill Gates. Nothing seems so corrosive of social welfare as the sense that people in similar circumstances are freeloading at work or on benefit. Fairness, trust and the strength of social bonds make us happier. They also do a lot to make us richer.

That is why the notion that greed is good is doubly flawed – perhaps trebly so, because you do not become happy by taking out more than you put in. Almost every survey shows that stable relationships and fulfilling jobs are the most important contributors of personal happiness.

This evidence points to policies appropriate for a society that aims to promote the happiness of its citizens. Such policies are family friendly, and provide generous benefits to the unemployed. Decent employment is available to anyone who wants a job but people who are fit to work must accept that this is a condition of benefit. The happy country maintains social homogeneity and institutionalises trust between citizens.

We could – and should – do more research on what makes people happy and what does not. We might also go to the countries that have the highest reported happiness levels – Denmark and the Netherlands – and look at how people live and what their governments do. The conclusions we reach will be very similar.

* Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Allen Lane)

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