There’s been talk that measuring wellbeing, as the authors of the recent World Happiness Report tried to do globally, is a conceptually difficult undertaking. It isn’t. Look at a people’s health, longevity, social relationships, opportunities for creativity, access to meaningful work and enjoyable leisure, and you’ve got the important bases covered.
There are some interesting wrinkles when it comes to subjective reports of happiness. We are such deeply social animals that our sense of our own ‘happiness’ seems closely tied to our assessment of others and how they’re doing.
In this, it’s a lot like wealth. This is the source of Mencken’s hilarious observation that a wealthy man is “one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband”. So, too, a person’s assessment of how he’s doing depends on how and what the neighbours are doing.
The bad news is that resentment and ‘green eye’ aren’t passing hiccups in people’s understanding of others, or in their own self-assessment. They’re permanent features of how people judge their relative position in the world.
The good news is that this same competitiveness makes people invent and deploy smartphones, iPods, Ferragamo shoes, cool cars, and breast-augmentation surgery to outshine their contemporaries and make old classmates feel like underachievers.
This world recession hasn’t helped. The New York Times carried an article last week about a Belgrade couple trying to sell their kidneys for 30,000 Euros. “Elsewhere in Spain, Italy and Russia … people [are] peddling everything from kidneys to hair, sperm and breast milk … with asking prices for lungs as high as €250,000.”
Then there are places like Zimbabwe, with life expectancy in the 30s and 20 per cent of the population with HIV. The Caribbean may have taken a beating economically but we haven’t had to issue a $100-trillion bill like in Zimbabwe.
Fact is, there’s a lot of global misery. John Lanchester’s wonderful piece called Marx at 193 in the London Review of Books notes that a “representative human in 2012 is a 28-year-old Han Chinese man, [with] no bank account but a mobile [phone], earning on average less than 8,000 pounds a year.” This is not a happy guy. And he’s not going to get much happier anytime soon either.
Apart from everything else, there’s a demographic nightmare coming caused by the widespread abortion of females in India and China, where about 120 males are born for every 100 females.
By 2020, it is estimated China will have between 30 million and 40 million more men than women under the age of 19. So, within eight years, China faces the prospect of having the equivalent of the whole young male population of America permanently single.
That’s going to be a REALLY unhappy guy, and he will go in search of the only thing that’ll be on his mind.
There are still a lot of very poor people in the world. Earlier this year, the World Bank reported that 1.29 billion people live in extreme poverty. That number represents about 22 per cent of the world’s population and a vast improvement over the 52 per cent in 1981, or the 44 per cent in 1990.
Antigua & Barbuda wasn’t ranked in the report. However, the world’s first ‘happiness map’, published back in 2006, ranked the twin isle nation at 16th happiest destination on the planet.
Sure that was before the global recession made its presence felt here. But one thing most experts agree on is that war, famine and political instability top the list of factors that blight Earth’s most unfortunate inhabitants.
Conversely, a strong sense of collective identity, the strength of social support, and a degree of personal freedom, are cited as major contributors to personal wellbeing.
Proof perhaps that we still have plenty to smile about.