The obsession with happiness

Publicado el 7 de agosto, 2012 | 0 comentarios | Archivado en : , , , ,


Latin America needs to find new ways to measure development that go beyond traditional economic indicators –like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and labor income– but it should not get lost in the obsession for happiness.

The global debate about measuring development “beyond GDP” and using “well-being” as an indicator of progress is genuinely relevant for Latin America, and should be welcomed. In fact, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines human development precisely as something greater than GDP: human development is the process of enlarging people’s freedoms, choices, and capabilities to lead the lives they value and have reason to value.

Well-being has to do with everything that involves quality of life –from income, health, security and civil rights/liberties, to the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the quality of employment and the ability to go about life without suffering discrimination, shame or humiliation. Each of these dimensions can be measured by objective or subjective indicators. For example, to measure physical safety we can gather information on the number of crimes reported, or we could ask people how safe they feel. In fact, we could actually measure well-being as a whole by asking people: how satisfied [or happy] are you with your life?. The answer to this question is known as “subjective well-being” and is commonly referred to as happiness.

A lot of attention has been given to this last component of well-being: to happiness (or subjective well-being) *. However, it is important that we recognize that –without getting into an ideological debate on whether the government should or shouldn’t get involved in such deep personal matters– there are significant shortcomings of using happiness as a development measure: happiness is cultural, it’s relative (people may be more/less satisfied if they are better/worse than their peers, regardless of their absolute condition **), it’s volatile (it depends highly on people’s mood the day they are interviewed ***), and thanks to people’s ability to adapt, it tells us little about their real/objective conditions. The words used by prominent philosopher, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen –father of the capabilities and freedom approach– to describe the flaws of utilitarianism are enlightening: “it is sensible enough to take note of happiness, but we do not necessarily want to be happy slaves or delirious vassals”.

While it is true that GDP –by itself– does not provide a complete picture of development, one based on happiness in which people have adapted to precarious conditions doesn’t tell us that much either. In fact, it can easily tell us the opposite. And this is precisely what happens with the Happy Planet Index (HPI), from the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The HPI is an efficiency measure that ranks countries on how many long and happy lives they produce per unit of environmental input (the Index uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint to calculate this). The NEF concludes that Costa Rica (#1 in their ranking) should set the example for the rest of the world, praising the country’s ability to generate high levels of happiness and longevity, while consuming a fraction of the resources than the rest of its peers. And indeed there is room to reflect about a country that lives by the motto “pura vida” (an expression that means something similar to “everything cool”); a country that abolished its military in 1949 and that has served as mediator of peace in Central America. Yet, by taking a closer look at the HPI data we find a pattern: nine out of the top ten countries with the highest HPI are from Latin America and the Caribbean, including: Colombia, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Jamaica and Guatemala. Now this is a different story. We are now talking about countries that face severe security and inequality issues, and that continue to battle against extreme poverty. If we assume the adaptation hypothesis to be true, it seems that by narrowly focusing on happiness, we end up justifying and praising precarious conditions only because they have become so common that people have grown accustomed to them. Indeed it looks like the way to maximize the HPI is precisely through the “happy slaves” referenced by Amartya Sen.

So, if we should seek to measure development beyond income, but subjective well-being (happiness) does not seem to be the best way to do so, then: what should we measure?

Development is multidimensional and, therefore, should be measured as such by using both objective and subjective information. The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), having developed the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) and the Missing Dimensions of Poverty, provides a useful guide. The OPHI argues that we should not only measure people’s deprivations (in education, health and living standards), but that we should also incorporate subjective measures that help us understand people’s perception about: their ability to go about without shame, the quality of their jobs, the levels of crime and violence, their empowerment capacity and their levels of happiness/satisfaction.

Some of the data required to build the MPI is collected through household surveys. However, in LAC many times the existing information is not easily comparable across countries and, for the most part, a complete set of subjective data is not readily available. Today, for example, we do not know if the average Latin-American is more or less prone to suffer discrimination. We do not know which country does a better job at empowering its citizens (and why). We do not even know if the quality (not quantity) of employment has risen or dropped over time in the region.

Latin America and the Caribbean needs to start measuring progress beyond income and has to do it by studying well-being comprehensively across all its dimensions. But before we get caught-up under the obsession of happiness, let’s first focus on measuring all the other missing dimensions of poverty.



* The British economist Richard Layard, in the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, claims that “I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all”

** Carol Graham and Clifford Gaddy found, for example, that unemployed individuals are happier when more people are unemployed.

*** According to psychologist Martin Seligman the mood you are determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction you report.

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