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Sep 06

Australian happiness studies

This article in the SMH, “We’re richer but not happier” is an interesting one. From a sample size of 1000 Australians, four out of 10 “think life is getting worse despite having experienced an era of spectacular economic growth, rising incomes and low unemployment”. Only a quarter think that life is improving.

I think those statistics, if representative of Australia at large, are surprising and a little disturbing. From an economic perspective, things are going well. With unemployment is the lowest its been in several decades and underlying inflation within the RBA’s target band, the country’s political and economic environment are stable. I was only in primary school during our last recession (the one “we had to have“) but I do remember the gloomy mood at the time – quite a contrast to what’s happened over the last 10 years or so. We fuss about 0.25% rises in interest rates and soaring petrol prices now, but at least we have jobs that can pay for them. And despite the focus on terrorism, eroded civil liberties and various disagreeable government policies, the social environment has been mostly stable as well.

It’s almost trite to say that, past a certain point, wealth doesn’t necessarily correlate to happiness. Past the point where your money allows you to support yourself and your family, everything suddenly becomes relative. That’s why people living on US$20 day in developing countries can feel as happy as someone earning ten times that amount in a western country. It’s an obvious concept, but I suppose a hard principle to live your life by because of the societal conventions we are brought up to instinctively believe. Happiness as a goal is elusive, whereas wealth can be easily distilled into a number.

The article identifies family as the most important source of happiness, but it neglects to say why people currently think life is getting worse. The question asked was phrased: “Thinking about the overall quality of life of people in Australia, taking into account social, economic and environmental conditions and trends, would you say that life in Australia is getting better, worse, or staying about the same?” Which is different from saying, “Is your life getting better or worse?”

The former question looks at macro factors (eg, socio-economic trends and general conditions) which may be quite detached from the personal factors (family, health, community and friends). For example, deriving happiness from your family is largely independent from how the economy is faring. “Work fulfillment” and a “nice place to live” (not sure whether that means a nice house, or just a nice country to be in) which are personal factors more directly linked to socio-economic factors barely rate a mention as a source of personal happiness.

The question about the happiness pill (“Would you take a legal happiness pill that had no detrimental side-effects?”) is a non-sensical question. Happiness is instinctively addictive, since that’s what all of us want in life (even if we don’t consciously know it). By extension, such a pill would be too. But even putting that aside, if we could all afford to pop these pills all day, we wouldn’t need to do anything to achieve happiness, so we could just sit around all day smiling while the world around collapses. But that’s okay, because as long as we’re on the happiness pill, we don’t have to deal with that calamity. Which means pretty much you’d have to keep taking the pill because once you stopped, you’d be facing a reality that would turn you suicidal. That sounds like a pretty bad, unavoidable side-effect to me.

All in all, I do find it peculiar that 40% of us think that life is getting worse. Does anyone have any ideas about why?