Are you happy? It’s one of the most important questions we can ever ask. What about our collective happiness? How does Cayman measure up as a society? Are we happy enough? Are we on course to becoming happier or less happy? It might surprise some, but more of the world’s social scientists than ever—including some economists—are paying attention to happiness. It’s about time, I say.
Throughout Cayman’s recent economic problems there has been plenty of talk about the need to stay rich and get richer. But there has been very little talk about the need to stay happy and get happier. Why is this? These are not the same things. More money does not necessarily mean more happiness. A recent study in the US found that people who make between US$50,000 and US$74,999 per year tend to be happier than those who make more than US$75,000 per year. Of course there has to be a basic level of economic security or happiness plummets. However, when basic needs are met and other aspects of a person’s life are going well, more money does not consistently translate into more happiness. More to the point, why do we tend to think richer nations are happier nations when it’s just not so?
A ranking of the world’s wealthiest nations is significantly different from a ranking of the happiest nations. According to the “World Map of Happiness”, a ranking produced by University of Leicester social psychologist Adrian White, economic powerhouses such as the United States (23rd), Germany (35th), United Kingdom (41st), China (82nd), and Japan (90th) are well below list leaders Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland. None of the world’s top-ten economies in 2008 made the world’s top-ten for national happiness. Why, then, is so much of everything geared toward making more and more money? Why are governments graded so often on economic performance and little else? Maybe it’s time for the Cayman Islands to focus less on things that can make us rich and more on things that can make us happy.
Instead of aiming to be a “rich Cayman that strives to get richer”, why not aim to be a “prosperous Cayman that strives to be happier”? Maybe a forest full of trees is worth more than its lumber and real estate value because it makes people happier when they have a place to play and picnic. If we can agree that money is not everything, then maybe an unspoiled beach that is accessible to all will be seen as more valuable than one that is heavily developed, restricted, and darkened by the shadows of tall condos and hotels. Too often, here as elsewhere, national long-term happiness is never included in the decision making process. Do we really need to squeeze every possible penny out of every hour of every day? Why not insert happiness into the equation and try to maximize that? Why can’t we be greedy for happiness for a change?
This is not an anti-capitalism rant. I’m not suggesting that everyone should live in hippie communes and eat alfalfa sprouts. I’m only proposing that we take a long hard look at our goals and make happiness a consideration. Is it really responsible for us to try and make Cayman as rich as possible while just hoping that happiness will take care of itself? It didn’t work for Japan. That’s a fine country, of course, but despite being the second-largest economy last, Japan ranks a not-so-cheery 90th in national happiness.
We may have an opportunity to chart a new course in the midst of current economic difficulties. As we debate how best to modify our society to pay bills and keep the big machine of government running, maybe we should consider placing a higher priority on happiness. It may sound silly to some, but is it? If we’re not happy, what’s the point? A 2006 survey by the BBC found that 81 percent of Britons want their government to focus on making them happier rather than richer. I wonder what a similar survey would reveal about us.
Research has exposed some interesting things about happy societies versus less happy societies. I believe there are some profound lessons for us in this data. For example, the countries at the top of world happiness rankings tend to be more free, more tolerant, pro-human rights, concerned with gender fairness, invest heavily in education and healthcare for all, have governments that are highly secular, and give relatively high priority to the conservation of their natural environments. Those at the bottom of the happiness scale are consistently less free, less tolerant, anti-human rights, care little or nothing about gender fairness, have governments that are intertwined with religious agendas, care little about human rights, and place a low priority on their natural environment. These are striking differences and we should be paying attention.
In recent decades, people seem to care about GDP (gross domestic product, the total goods and services of a country) and little else when assessing a country’s well being. But GDP doesn’t tell us many of the things we need to know about the true state of a population. For example, a relatively high GDP might hide the fact that many people are not doing so well because they have been left behind economically while only a small minority enjoyed a financial boom. A rising GDP might falsely reassure us when we should be alarmed by growing numbers of people who are unfulfilled, uneducated, unhealthy, and unhappy. Obsessing over GDP can cloud reality. Believe it or not, more sick people and more crime can be wonderful things if GDP is all you look at. For example, Cayman’s GDP could be boosted by the economic activity that comes with a rise in diabetes cases (more doctor visits, more prescription medicines sold, more wheelchairs sold, and so on). An increase in crime might mean more security businesses started, more guards hired, and more alarm systems sold—all great for a country’s GDP but not so great for the human beings who have to live in the country. Another example is that many pro-environment laws may negatively impact our GDP even though they are necessary for Cayman’s long-term health and prosperity.
For reasons such as these, Nobel prize-winning economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz recently produced a report in which they call for a new way of measuring how well a society is doing, one that considers more than just raw economic output. It would be nice if the world’s leaders take a long hard look at their recommendations. I hope our leaders do.
“If we have the wrong metrics,” Stiglitz wrote in a piece recently published in the Financial Times, “we will strive for the wrong things. In the quest to increase GDP, we may end up with a society in which most citizens have become worse off.”
Cayman seems to be doing well relative to the rest of the world. We appear to be a fairly happy society and our GDP looks good. But without something more meaningful than GDP to go by, how can we really know? Are we heading in the right direction? Are we doing the things today that are likely to make most of our people happier in the future?
Guy P. Harrison’s columns appear twice per month in the Observer on Sunday. Contact guy at [email protected]