Friday, April 13, 2007

Happiness Revisited

OFD’s original post (Ebay vs. Happiness) asserted that heavy promotion of material goods is questionable because it encourages people to look for a source of happiness in the wrong place: external acquisition of things vs. internal focus and control.

One contributor asserted that such a view is idealistic on the grounds that global market development has created a demand for labor (though in exploitable terms) that has enabled people in China and India to pull themselves out of poverty; one must be happier out of poverty than in it.

This exchange raises two needed points of clarification:
1. A developing country is a very different economic and market context from that under examination in the original post, which was a western world, affluent consumer culture setting for exploring the material good-happiness link

2. People’s relationship with material goods as a medium for happiness is likely to be strongly influenced by context. To the anonymous commentators point, a person previously in poverty is likely to be happier at new found ownership of a fridge, whereas most people in the western world have been used to having a fridge however modest their means. Even in regard to the same object, context plays a key role in significance.

Therefore, any serious examination of happiness must look at its occurrence across contexts of differing economic and market development.

The World Values Survey has done just that. A longitudinal study beginning as early as 1958 in some countries, it researches happiness along a number of dimensions in addition to other aspects of human experience.

The findings are telling indeed.

Which countries top the happiest nations league table?

It is not first-world candidates you might expect:
* Nigeria
* Mexico
* Venezuela
* El Salvador
* Puerto Rico

Source: New scientist courtesy of the BBC

According to an assessment of the study by the BBC:

“The researchers for World Values Survey described the desire for material goods as "a happiness suppressant".

They say happiness levels have remained virtually the same in industrialised countries since World War II, although incomes have risen considerably. The exception is Denmark, where people have become more satisfied with life over the last three decades.

Researchers believe the unchanging trend is linked to consumerism."

The relationship between wealth creation and happiness is directly explored by The Economist from earlier this year - Happiness (and how to measure it):

It concludes that capitalism can make a society richer and keep it free, but not necessarily contribute to its happiness. It notes that – not surprisingly) while rich people report being happier than poor people, affluent countries have not got happier as they have grow richer, there being no change in the former since WW II.

OFD’s take on this all:

*Context (economic, market and political) must be taken into account in an assessment of happiness
* People have mistaken prosperity with happiness
* Capitalism has a clearer role in advancing happiness in developing countries and those in poverty
* Rising affluence in developed countries does not itself create happiness
* Ebay does encourage us to buy shit that itself is unlikely to make us happy.

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