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Having more stuff doesn't make you happier – so what does?

We are increasingly recognising that ‘progress’ should be about increasing human happiness and well-being, not the size of our wallets.

FRIDAY 20 MARCH is International Day of Happiness. You may have missed the previous ones, but the United Nations have asked us to mark this day dedicated to the pursuit of happiness since 2013.

Two years earlier, UN member states agreed that happiness is a “fundamental human goal” and said that they would work together to achieve “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes… happiness and well-being of all peoples”. (Read the full text of the UN resolution here)

Economic growth does not automatically lead to better lives

In other words, world leaders have agreed that their governments have an obligation to actively seek to improve the happiness of their citizens. Sounds obvious, but historically, governments have tended to focus on economic growth as one of their core priorities, assuming that economic growth would lead to happier people.

But for many years now, politicians and economists have acknowledged that reality is more complex. Economic growth does not automatically lead to better lives and wealth does not “trickle down” to the poor, whose job prospects, health and education opportunities are limited by their status and position in society.

Experience shows that “the rising tide” is lifting fewer and fewer boats and that wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, to the extent that Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion – half the world’s population – put together.

‘What gets measured gets done’

Secondly the way we measure growth – tracking the Gross Domestic Product or GDP – makes us prioritise the wrong things. Environmentalists have long pointed out that what is needed is an indicator of economic quality, not just quantity: GDP goes up if, for instance, you destroy a forest, but it does not take account of the damage done to the country side. Similarly, GDP goes up if there is more crime, as more people spend money on locks and anti-theft devices.

As Bobby Kennedy famously put it: GDP “measures everything except that which is worthwhile.”

In recent years economists have therefore been looking at other measures of well-being and happiness. In the knowledge that “what gets measured gets done”, the search is one for a tool that allows the world to “measure what matters”. There are many indices being proposed, ranging from those that measure the economy’s ecological footprint, the Human Development Index and the Genuine Progress Indicator to those that capture subjective well-being or even Gross National Happiness.

An indicator of what we think should be important

All these indicators are intended to provide information about our society: how it is faring and how it is changing. And by choosing particular indicators, we are also defining what is important to us as a society, and how we want to develop. Ditching an indicator that measures activity, and replacing it with one that measures well-being is therefore not merely a symbolic act; it is a choice we make about what we think should be important.

So by setting a date focused on happiness, the members of the United Nations have encouraged us to take human well-being more seriously.

And International Day of Happiness 2015 may well be more important than others. For this year, UN member states are negotiating a new set of global priorities, to tackle the world’s most pressing problems: extreme poverty, hunger and climate change. And the goals they are proposing – in a negotiation process chaired jointly by the governments of Ireland and Kenya – focus not just on economic growth, but on values such as human dignity, global solidarity and the inclusion of everyone.

The new global goals recognise that well-being is a serious global issue and that we have to find new ways to balance the needs of a growing world population with those of the planet on which we live.

Having more stuff does not make you a happier person

But there are also more immediate reasons to focus on happiness. Most of us realise instinctively that richer people are not necessarily happier people. We know that, within countries, people are happier as their incomes increase but that the link weakens as incomes rise. Being richer helps, as it allows for better health and more choices, but having more stuff does not make you a happier person.

Inversely, having unhappy neighbours or work colleagues is a big problem. Social discontent breeds conflict, crime and insecurity, and having unhappy employees makes your business less productive. Happy workers have more energy, are more engaged in their jobs and are less likely to be absent due to sickness – precisely the reason why so many managers now focus more on their workforce and their company’s reputation than on the short-term, narrow goal of profit maximisation.

Do we know what it is that makes us happy?

In short, we are experiencing a gradual but marked shift in attitudes to “happiness”, all over the world. People, businesses and politicians are increasingly recognising that ‘progress’ should be about increasing human happiness and well-being, not just growing our wallets or the size of the economy. And on 20 March, we are being asked to think about our own attitudes to this trend: do we know what it is that makes us happy, as individuals and as a nation? And if so, do the choices we make as consumers, citizens and voters bring us closer to what makes us truly happy?

No matter what the cynics say: it does make sense to focus more on happiness, and to actively try to shape our society in such a way as to maximise human well-being.

Hans Zomer is Director of Dóchas, the Irish national platform of Development NGOs. Through Dóchas, Irish NGOs work together to improve the impact of their work, and to apply their collective experiences to inform government policy and practice.

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