In 2010, a global survey conducted by Gallup Poll rated Nigeria as having the happiest people on earth. The poll found Nigerians to be the most optimistic in the world in their outlook for 2011. It also found that the most optimistic people mostly live in low-income countries such as Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Peru, and Bangladesh.
By the mention of such diverse cultures as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Peru, and Bangladesh, discredits the notion that Nigeria topped the poll because of the ‘positive confession’, or, as the late music icon, Fela Kuti put it, ‘suffering and smiling’ culture. Indeed, happiness is possible even in lack.
In the 1970s, in the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the country’s economy was coming under major scrutiny. By most measures, gross domestic product, national income, employment, and so on, Bhutan was growing sluggishly. So the king of Bhutan did something unusual. He decreed that from then on Bhutan’s progress would be measured not against those traditional economic yardsticks, but against its Gross National Happiness.
What that Bhutan king did might have seemed an unconventional response to outside criticism, but he had struck upon an idea that would grow into an important, increasingly respectable study, that of happiness economics. It is a subject many people can relate to. That is why happynomics has become an important topic in economics over the last two decades.
As nations and individuals, almost all of us are richer and healthier than ever before. However, this wealth has gone hand in hand with a malaise of discontent. Those in rich nations have been getting less and less happy over the past 50 years.
Traditional economics does not have a satisfactory answer for this. Since the time of Adam Smith, wealth has been assumed to be the key measure of a country’s progress. It is for this reason, and the fact that money is easy to measure, that economists have tended to concentrate on measures such as gross domestic product, unemployment, and a handful of other social measures such as life expectancy and inequality.
Happynomics is about the links between wealth and happiness. Everyone wants to be happy – and most advertisers try to persuade us that the secret of happiness is the next thing we will buy. But we know that long-lasting happiness usually depends on many deeper things: friendship, strong family relationships, good health, personal fulfillment, and so on.
It is hard to be happy if you have many worries about money, too little or too much. In fact, great wealth brings many pressures of its own. Once basic needs have been met, happiness does not usually go on rising in direct proportion to personal income.
Lower-income does not necessarily lead to greater unhappiness – especially if everyone you know is in the same situation, and there is no severe hardship such as the threat of losing a home. People adjust, and enjoy simpler lower-cost things in life.
Pursuing happiness seems to have yielded definite results in Bhutan. Since taking up the gross happiness index, the country has grown at a remarkable rate by even conventional economic terms. In 2007 it was the second fastest-growing economy in the world, all the while managing to increase its gross national happiness. In an effort to sustain people’s contentedness, there have been decrees that 60 percent of the country should remain covered in forest, while tourism, which apparently undermines happiness, is capped each year. Money is redistributed from rich to poor so as to help eliminate mass poverty.
These efforts to make Bhutan happier seem to have borne fruit. According to a survey in 2005, only 3 percent of people reported not being happy, while almost half the population said they were very happy.
But such surveys can often be vague, unconvincing, and difficult to compare empirically. Happiness is far more difficult to measure than, for instance, levels of wealth or life expectancy, and it is this that has caused its neglect in economics. However, recent advances in brain scans have helped neuroscientists identify which part of the central nervous system is most stimulated by happiness, and the findings have helped add a layer of scientific credibility to measures of happiness.
In recent decades, economists and psychologists have, for the first time, started measuring, in earnest, people’s happiness in long-term studies. The conclusion they have come to is that although one’s happiness increases as one go from being poor to rich, the level of contentedness starts to drop off as one gets further from the poverty line. According to Richard Layard, a British economist who specializes in happiness economics, once a nation’s average salary goes beyond $20,000, income rises stop making people happier and gradually make them less content. In economic phraseology, there are diminishing returns of happiness beyond that point.
That is what Richard Easterlin, one of the pioneers of the study, calls a ‘hedonic cycle’: once you get rich you get accustomed to it very quickly, and soon take such a standard of life for granted. Moreover, research from the field of behavioral economics has shown that once our basic needs are fulfilled we start to measure our contentedness based, not on our absolute wealth and achievements, but in competition to others. The old adage that one is happy with one’s salary provided it is higher than one’s wife’s sister’s husband’s has a definite basis in psychology.
Such findings are a pointer to the fact that a 24-hour-news-and-celebrity culture, with the lifestyles of the rich, beautiful and famous constantly advertised, is likely to undermine people’s contentedness yet further.
Interestingly, since 2012, when Denmark overtook Nigeria in the global happiness index, Nigerians have had a steady southward rating, with the most recent position being 116 out of 155 countries polled.
What may have altered Nigerians’ sense of contentment and optimism about the future? Whereas there is a limit at which increasing wealth adds little or no value to one’s pursuit of happiness, there is a point at which sheer lack of life’s necessities induces discontent.
For example, frequent worries about the rising costs of necessities such as food, shelter, clothes, transportation, health service, children’s education, security, to name a few, are evidently weighing heavily on Nigerians’ innate pursuit of happiness. Especially spates of insecurity that straddle the length and breadth of the country, which seem to be a new reality, dim Nigerians’ outlook about the future.
The idea that a country’s progress should be measured against its happiness did not, in fact, begin in Bhutan in the 1970s. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson laid down that Americans should be entitled not just to life and liberty, but also to the pursuit of happiness. Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century inventor of the philosophy of utilitarianism, said that humans should strive for the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’.
Nigerians are inherently happy people. Under the right conditions, they can reclaim their coveted state of contentment. But clearly not with 17 percent inflation and 33 percent rate of unemployment!