A number of United Nations members are pushing for a sort of Gross National Happiness index. The first World Happiness Report has just been published, and it attempts to measure aspects of social and economic life beyond Gross Domestic Product. Photo by Michael Swan

Does money lead to happiness?

  • April 12, 2012

TORONTO - Most Canadians are richer than their parents, far richer than their grandparents, infinitely richer than their great-grandparents. But are we happier for this?

For plenty of indebted, stressed and uncertain Canadians, their country’s rising Gross Domestic Product has not translated into a more meaningful, more satisfying life, either individually or on the level of community. How many can claim to live in a more harmonious, more confident community than the generation that endured the Great Depression and two World Wars?

What we measure matters. If our politics and our headlines are driven by the weekly, monthly and annual pulse of the GDP we end up living narrow, nervous lives on a shrinking and poisoned planet, according to Dennis Patrick O’Hara, a University of St. Michael’s College theology professor.

“Catholic social teaching talks about the very things that the GDP doesn’t measure,” points out O’Hara. “It talks about taking care of the poor, the marginalized, the people without a voice. It talks about proper income distribution. It talks more recently about care for the planet. It talks about the rights of workers. It will say things about the quality of one’s existence.”

While economists and government policy makers have that hard nugget of GDP data to rely on, there’s no such thing as a Catholic social teaching index to indicate whether we’re getting any closer to a just society or the kingdom of God.

“We need a different indicator that looks at how all of us are flourishing in a mutually enhancing way so that we have a sustainable future. This is the core of our faith,” said O’Hara, director of the Toronto-based Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.

As the world gets ready to meet in Brazil for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June, it seems the United Nations, civil society and governments as diverse as Brazil, Britain and Bhutan are prepared to advocate for just such a different indicator — some form of Gross National Happiness index.

University of British Columbia economist John Helliwell, along with colleagues Jeffrey Sach of Columbia University and Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, have just published the first-ever World Happiness Report, an attempt to measure aspects of our social and economic life that go beyond the dollar value of all goods and services bought and sold.

“When you use the happiness lens you think differently about which parts of economic progress are to be cherished and which parts are unnecessary,” Helliwell told The Catholic Register. “It requires thinking about the environment differently just as much as it requires thinking about the economy or the workplace or your neighbourhood differently.”

It turns out Canada’s not doing badly in combined measures of national happiness. Canada ranks fifth behind four northern European nations (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands) in World Happiness Report rankings. The United States comes in 11th, behind Ireland and in front of Costa Rica. The bottom five are all in sub-Saharan Africa (Burundi, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Benin, Togo).

It turns out Canada’s not doing badly in combined measures of national happiness. Canada ranks fifth behind four northern European nations (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands) in World Happiness Report rankings. The United States comes in 11th, behind Ireland and in front of Costa Rica. The bottom five are all in sub-Saharan Africa (Burundi, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Benin, Togo).

Graphic by Lucy Barco

The point of the exercise is not some sort of happiness competition. It’s about a more complete understanding of how our economy and society work.

“It’s not against GDP. It’s beyond it,” said Helliwell.

Wealth generation is part of the happiness equation on a national and international scale.

“There’s no way any country can reach anything like northern European levels of happiness at sub-Saharan income levels. It would be foolish,” said Helliwell.

But Helliwell and his colleagues found there’s more than money to happiness. Community participation, spirituality and religion, family stability, honest and reliable government, public safety, health and the state of the environment all play a role.

“Countries in which income matters more to people are on average less happy countries,” is one of Helliwell’s conclusions.

Recent research by American sociologist Robert Putnam in an essay called “Praying Alone is No Fun” has found that being at home in church, having friends on Sunday morning, has an enormous effect on happiness.

“Church friends are supercharged friends,” points out Helliwell. “Friends in general with whom you share an identity — a set of beliefs and core values — turn out to be more important to you and more supportive of you than ordinary friends.”

The World Happiness Report debuted at a UN conference chaired by Bhutan. Bhutan pioneered its Gross National Happiness index in the 1970s and has been pushing for its adoption by other countries ever since. Bhutan’s UN conference came a week after a UNESCO preparatory meeting for Rio+20 in London called “Pressure on the Planet.” The UNESCO final communique criticized reliance on the GDP. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon came out strongly in favour of a happiness index in New York April 2.

Rio+20 — 20 years after the conference that first put climate change on the world agenda — is being primed to push nations into measuring happiness and using the measures to shape national and international economic and environmental policy.

When it comes to the progress of poor nations, it’s happiness rather than GDP that defines development, said Shelly Burgoyne. The youth co-ordinator for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace will lead a delegation of nine young women to the Rio+20 conference.

“It’s how you live in your environment and the livability of any city or town that greatly affects your happiness,” said Burgoyne.

Development and Peace’s approach to development isn’t about getting its partners to make a greater contribution to GDP. It’s about finding ways of building up stable, livable communities where people have control over their destiny.

“GDP is a good measure of overall success, but it kind of glosses over the reality on the ground,” Burgoyne said.

In Canada, we’re pushing up our GDP numbers at the expense of the planet and to the detriment of the small farmers and entrepreneurs Development and Peace supports, said Burgoyne.

Development and Peace is sending a delegation to Rio+20 because that’s the sort of advocacy peasant co-operatives and citizen action groups have asked of the Canadians, according to Burgoyne.

Not all environmentalists are on board with a happiness index, said Helliwell. Getting people to think differently about economics is going to take some time, he said.

“The public perception and interest group perception of this work is at about the same stage as climate change was at the first Rio summit 20 years ago.”

Read the full report in the embedded document viewer below.

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