Can't buy happiness


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Category: Reflections Date: 18 Aug 02

I was telling someone the other day how on hot summer evenings in India’s cities, people sleep outdoors, under the sky on their roofs, and terraces. The person looked astonished. “But there is so much poverty in India. Didn’t you get robbed?”

No, “I replied” despite its poverty, people in India don’t live with a constant dread of menace. “Why”?


“You may think it wrong, but the Indian psyche is steeped in two things – acceptance of ones lot, and doing ones duty while leaving the rest to destiny or God or whatever you want to call it.”

“So these poor people are not unhappy that some people have so much and they so little?” my interlocutor asked incredulous now.

 “Maybe, but still the most important thing to them is not money, but a sense of self steeped in doing ones duty.”


Who then is the happiest person in the world? According to last weeks edition of The Economist, which reported on “happiness surveys” it is not necessarily the richest man in the world and he does not live in America.


One recent study, reported this leading financial magazine, said ‘she’ – (note it is a woman,) is educated, married, well-off and retired. Still another, ‘famously concluded’ that marital satisfaction could be predicted by the frequency of sexual encounters minus the number of quarrels.


But the primary focus of the happiness article in this leading financial magazine is on the most recent ‘happiness’ survey conducted by Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick University.


Professor Oswald, who believes his survey could revolutionize public policy says the idea that money can buy happiness is wrong. According to Professor Oswalds findings, health and love count far more towards being happy than income. He backs this up by saying that although Britain is nearly three times richer than it was half a century ago, people are not happier. That, says Professor Oswald, should encourage the government to look beyond GDP as a measure of quality of life.


More controversially, the Economist reports that Professor Oswald has come up with a way of putting values on "life events". On average, Oswald says, “getting married brings the same amount of happiness as about £60,000 (about 600,000 TT) a year in income. The loss of well-being caused by widowhood would take £170,000 (1.7 million TT dollars) a year to offset. Unemployment brings psychological costs equivalent to much more than the average drop in income, if jobs are unavailable to people who want to work. ” Oswald has yet to place a price on infidelity but implies it could cripple the perpetrator.


Some of Professor Oswald’s colleagues are skeptical both about his survey and results, believing that happiness is subjective, and that go getters who take their life in their hands, tend to be happier in general. But his battery of researchers defend him saying their samples are large enough to average out individual answers.


So what can we conclude about Professor Oswald’s survey? Simply that once more, scientific data points to the fact that human beings requirements for basic happiness are the same everywhere.


It sounds cheesy but Professor Oswald took the roundabout route to tell us what we all knew all along. That the primary requirement for happiness for us all from Trinidad to Timbuktu is not money but love with all that it implies, an ally against a harsh world, someone to keep loneliness at bay, someone to cheer you along, someone to add richness to your life, to laugh and cry with you to bear witness to your life.


The second is good health. We knew that all along too. But it could be another wake up call to us all – that we often don’t realize until its too late, how important good health is to us all. So we’d better cut out that nicotine, that fat, those calorie packed soft-drinks and take a bike ride or a run as our route to maintaining happiness.


The stable income comes trailing in third as a contributor to happiness. More important than that, according to the economics professor, is job satisfaction. So he’s again reveals what we know deep down. Its important to spend your working hours doing what you love to do, so you can turn the final key to happiness –  financial stability, security, and wealth - the ability to buy trinkets of status.


American cable has ensured that we, like people worldwide, have been brainwashed and are now consumed by the idea that cars, phones, designer shoes are necessary to happiness. And this pursuit of wealth at all costs without a context of an ingrained philosophy of life, has swallowed up the humanity we find lacking in our criminals.


The sad thing is they can kill, and hold up and hate people who work hard for what they’ve got, but accumulation of wealth will not, according to this economics professor anyhow, make them happier people.


I don’t want to trivialize poverty and hunger – we know that Governments have a responsibility to their citizens to ensure that every human being has his basic right, shelter, food, security. We know this basic right is being denied to millions of people worldwide, that poor people are daily exploited. We know too, that Governments are generally made up of greedy people who squander in a day, funds that could feed a village for a month.


But we know too, that we can never buy, not with Ten Million dollars, or one million pounds, the sense of wonder, a ragged child feels on looking at sunset dusted with gold pollen, or the exuberance of being absorbed into a game of hop-scotch.


Ultimately, however, Professor Oswald’s theory has refuted something we’ve all heard at one time or another from an older person – You cant live on love and fresh air. It seems we can – well, just about. Ask the child, living intensely in the moment, concentrating on weaving jasmines flowers outside her hut, which she will tenderly put in her mothers hair.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur