The economy of happiness

2014-02-03 10:00

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How happy are we? Do you think about this? Do we think about this?

Things like gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national product (GNP) are not great indicators. South Africa is rich by African standards, but high inequality makes those benchmarks inaccurate measures of national happiness.

I would argue that we are a bumptious and argumentative lot; but we’re fairly happy, with big hearts. Of course, this is not represented in the images that define Mzansi in any given week.

This week, scenes of the riots in Limpopo, burning postal depots and protests across several campuses suggested a nation in revolt. Perhaps we are, but in my decades of reporting, I’ve discovered that South Africans of all hues are, often, deeply warm and kind – generous, too.

I mean no disparagement in writing this, nor do I mean to sideswipe chronic poverty and unemployment, but merely to explore a new avenue of economics, if you like – the economics of happiness.

If you ask repeat or resident visitors what brings them back to South Africa, they usually point not only to the splendours of our geography but also to the energy of our people.

Why is this? While at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, I came across a session on alternative ways of measuring happiness, so I began reading a little more on the subject. What is it that makes people and nations happy?

I think one thing is the weather.

An earlier session at the WEF revealed this: “The ideal environment for a sense of wellbeing is 27°C, with 70% humidity and a slight breeze. Apart from places like the Karoo, we often experience a climate like this.

Environment counts, and so does environmental action. “If children plant trees, it adds nothing to GNP, but air and water pollution stimulate it. A horrific car wreck boosts GNP, but walking or biking to work does not. This is a perverse system,” notes a WEF summary of the session.

For the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, happiness is often coincidental with having a decent income, a voice and a purpose.

How do we do in this regard?

On income, we’ve done rather badly, if you use employment as a yardstick. But if you factor in the social grants given to 18?million citizens, government’s done a fair deal to make us happier.

Voice? South Africans exercise voice all the time – in protest, in debate and in voting.

And what of purpose? I’d argue that joblessness reduces the purpose index, but numerous pieces of local research show that South Africans are engaged in community organisations, church work or activism, be it in political parties or labour and other movements. So, we do well on voice and purpose, but can do much better on income.

Stiglitz, who is a professor at Columbia University in New York, is designing a dashboard to develop different ways of measuring national happiness.

The east Asian kingdom of Bhutan (which I intend to visit soon) is the only place that has a happiness index, which is used as the key national measure of wellbeing.

Now Stiglitz, along with other economists and thinkers, is developing an index for global use.

I’d love to see us present it annually on budget day. Imagine Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan saving the best for last – after he announces the increase in sin taxes and revenue projections – saying: “?...?and the state of national happiness is?...”

For the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who trips about the globe in his saffron robe teaching the habits of happiness, there is no single measure. Rather, he reckons “it is a cluster of conditions”.

How do you get it?

Meditation or contemplation of any kind is one way. He says: “If a nation is powerful and rich but people are miserable, what’s the point? Happiness must be a concern for those who do not yet exist.” I like that. Do you?

Harvard economist Michael Porter, the world’s seminal thinker on competitiveness, says: “GDP does matter, but it does not measure everything. Opportunity informs happiness.”

From my experience as editor of this paper, I know what counts for many people is access to opportunity. So I’m not among those to sneeze at the ANC’s promise to extend job “opportunities” to 6?million people in its next term.

There’s an untold story about public works in the democratic era and how it has propelled people into lives of meaning (and purpose) through opportunity.

You could say the injection of an additional R1?billion into the National Student Financial Aid Scheme this week is opportunity, as is our social-welfare net.

If we unlock title deeds for RDP homes more easily, there’s an entire opportunity economy right there. According to Jeffrey Sachs, an economist who runs The Earth Institute at Columbia University, “it is not greed and avarice that have brought us to progress, but technology”. But he questions the way we choose to drive cars the size of houses.

Sachs says the accumulation of things won’t bring happiness, but in South Africa it seems we are going to try anyway.

Klaus Kleinfeld, the chief executive of aluminium producer Alcoa, poses this interesting question: “Would you quit your job if you won the lottery?”

Would you? He reckons three out of four Americans wouldn’t. I suspect a Marikana miner might, but how about you? How much is your happiness determined by your vocation and what you do each day?

All thinkers agree on two more important measures: purpose and connection.

Solitude is great, but not for long. And seeing as the braai is possibly our greatest cultural commonality in South Africa (as I’ve learnt from Jan Braai), we seem to be good at connecting.

If you had to devise a happiness index, what would you include in it? My early list includes opportunity (rather than only employment), purpose, connection, environment and activism.

»?Send me your thoughts on Twitter @ferialhaffajee or to letters@citypress.co.za

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