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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 23 October, 2014

Column: Is a fairer society a happier one?

To mark International Happiness Day, Karen Hand says Irish peoples’ happiness depends on a sense of fair play and accountability, which is why making fairness a priority will boost the happiness of the nation.

The UN has declared today the first International Day of Happiness. Last year, Karen Hand, a doctoral researcher co-curated the National Happiness Experiment with Professor Malcolm MacLachlan from Trinity College Dublin. Here she tells us what we can do as a nation to make ourselves happier. She writes:

HISTORICALLY, IRISH PEOPLE score very well in global happiness research – but have all of the recent crises blunted our national sense of cheer?

In May 2012, the Trinity School of Psychology teamed up with the Science Gallery and Vodafone to pioneer a mobile-text-based study over six weeks to explore aspects of Irish people’s happiness. Some 3309 people from all over Ireland participated; average age 44, from under 10 to over 80 years of age. Impressively, 80 per cent of participants stayed the distance and responded to the text questions over the full six weeks.

Overall scores for happiness were high in global terms – the National Happiness Experiment found that on average people scored 6.8 on a 10-point scale. However, the same people only rated Ireland at around five as ‘being a fair place’ on a 10-point scale and under four in terms of ‘powerful people being held accountable’.

Improving our collective happiness

Those people who had higher happiness scores were significantly more likely to have higher fairness and accountability scores, which argues that if we could improve the fairness of the system, we could improve our collective happiness even further. International research has separately demonstrated that economic inequality in societies is linked to more social problems (drug abuse, crime levels, mental health) regardless of absolute wealth levels in those societies.

This led us to ask what type of policies could be pursued to allow for a ‘fairer’ and ‘more inclusive’ Ireland, as part of pursuing an agenda with people’s happiness as an explicit goal, rather than a ‘trickle-down’ consequence of economic growth. Education and Health are obvious areas to consider. A two-tiered education system can widen societal division in terms of educational levels and subsequent social mobility.

In Ireland, one of the lead indices of educational success – going onto third level education – is influenced by whether your school is a private or public one. Of course every family should be able to choose the type of school they want for their children but, from a national policy view, perhaps common resources need to be applied to strengthening the common and public system.

Injustices in the system

A two-tiered health system can lead to waste and inefficiency in both tiers of the structure – queues on one side and empty beds on the other, not to mention the stress this places on the health professionals working there. When we combine this with the international evidence that higher levels of inequality lead to worse physical health and mental health for the population, we realise that it might be worth making fairness and inclusiveness a more explicit objective of health policy? It would be ironic if the way we are managing our health system were itself, negatively impacting on the total health burden of the nation.

The National Happiness Experiment found that people strongly agreed (7.5 on a 10-point scale) that Ireland ‘had a unique and valuable identity’ but a sense of fairness and accountability was also significantly correlated with this. It is understandable that in times like these, when we are cost-cutting and rationalising, making fairness a priority to boost the happiness of the nation, may seem like a pointless pipe-dream rather than a real possibility.

However, the exact opposite argument can also be made. If we are in the process of remaking Ireland, perhaps this is a chance to set out a stall on what we value, what we would want to achieve and how we could get there? Everyone understands that this will not happen overnight but the commitment to get there could be a shared intention and of itself, begin a journey towards greater happiness and fairness for all.

Karen Hand is a doctoral researcher who co-curated the National Happiness Experiment with Professor Malcolm MacLachlan, Trinity College Dublin. Their book Happy Nation? Prospects for Psychological Prosperity in Ireland (Liffey Press) can be bought in Eason’s and good bookshops around Ireland. 50 per cent of author’s royalties go to the St. Vincent to Paul.

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