Growth vs. Happiness - A New Year's Cozy Little Mystery


I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions,  I haven’t made them since I successfully gave up smoking just after my 40th Birthday (October, a few years ago).  I had just got married and my wife and I were starting to discuss what we needed to put in place before we even started thinking about having a family.  Giving up smoking was a key decision for me.  I had grown up with a parent who smoked and didn’t want to inflict that experience on my (as then) future children

I wasn’t my first attempt to stop.  I had resolved to quit smoking in numerous New Year’s Resolutions, only to find myself huddled outside with a dwindling group of enthusiasts puffing away in sub-zero temperatures come the first week of February, wondering to myself what the collective noun for nicotine addicts actually is… a junk or a smoke perhaps?  I finally managed to quit when I saw the reality of my addiction.  A cigarette when I needed to relax, and when I needed to concentrate?  It (finally) dawned on me that no drug could achieve both.  It was the satiation of the need to move the nicotine addiction/craving out of the way, so I could then relax or concentrate, that the cigarette provided.   I put out my last cigarette as Peter Gabriel was singing “I’ve kicked the habit” on Sledgehammer… an unplanned and prophetic experience.   Getting my head around that little oxymoronic conundrum had allowed me to find happiness without the dependency.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness over the last little while. We are just passed the season when you are most likely to be asked “What do you want for..?”, after all.  I came very close to  dying just over a year ago and that experience made completely re-evaluate what I consider to be precious in my life, which wasn’t stuff, but time.  By living I got the greatest gift I could be given:  time with my wife, time with my kids, time with my family.  All in all I feel pretty happy and I am delighted to be surrounded by a diverse group of friends and family in Toronto who all seem pretty happy too.  We have the usual first world problems, but we are largely fortunate and blessed.

Now, I do watch the news, read the papers and like to think I keep up with stuff, so I am very aware of how many people in my wife’s country of birth (the US) and mine (the UK) aren’t; happy that is.  If key decisions are a reflection of national happiness, then the collective outpouring that resulted in Brexit and Trump in 2016 would indicate that such happiness maybe in short supply in large parts of the US and UK population.

The panacea that was supposed to be unleashed by both Trump and Brexit was (the delusion of) taking back of control, a reduction in immigration (painted as a national scourge across both countries) and an implied increase in Economic Growth.  The ‘(Economic) Growth is Good’ mantra is pummeled into us all the time.  There is a global assumption that economies must grow, always, and that this growth benefits the whole of society.  It was the ideological justification for the recent tax cut in the US, and the UK.  By stimulating the supply side (making the rich and the corporations richer) the results will trickle down and this will lead to… growth, growth, growth!  

The orthodoxy then states that changes that benefit the 1% and corporations have to be paid for.  This normally falls on the shoulders of the mythical “feckless poor" that has proven so popular with the right-wing in both the UK and US.  The view that poverty is self-inflicted is often a foundation myth of Anglo-American right-wing governments and associated media, used to justify the cuts in the societal safety-net that are now suddenly necessary to balance budgets and pay for the "deserved" tax cuts for "job creators".  Such ideology does not infect much of the post-war thinking of the European right, which comes from a Christian Democrat tradition.  In Canada this Christian Democracy is propagated as Red-Toryism and is a key difference with the US.  Trump, of course, was also an exception, only of the nationalist/populist kind.  But, with his tax plans, his actions have spoken louder than words.  The most recent example of the "feckless poor" phenomenon  is Sen Chuck Grassley of Iowa who justified the changes in inheritance tax because the 'poor' “spend every darn penny… on booze or women.”  When the US deficit starts to rise, as it will, we can expect many more such examples to be used as justification for the inevitable cuts in social security.       

Is it a coincidence that the 2017 OECD World Happiness Report placed both the US (#14) and UK (#19) outside the top 10 happiest countries, and that they are both becoming unhappier?   Canada (#7) is grouped in the Top 10 along with the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand), Scandinavia, Switzerland and The Netherlands.  Last year Norway was top.  Economic Growth doesn’t appear to be a factor.  Norway (1.2% Economic Growth in 2017) was behind both the US (2.3%) and the UK (2%) in terms of growth, but way ahead in happiness.  So, if economic growth, whether  supported by trickle-down economics or not, isn’t a reliable happiness indicator, what is?  

My thoughts initially turned to pure inequality as the key, but when you look at the latest GINI indexes there is not as strong a correlation between happiness and more equal societies as I would have assumed.  Of the ten most equal countries, only Sweden and Finland are in the OECD’s top ten happiest, the biggest outlier is the Ukraine - #5 most equal, #132 in the Happiness Report, the lowest ranked of any European country.

The indicator that seems to be the closest fit is the Human Development Index (HDI).  The countries with the lowest differences in Income, Education and Health when inequality is taken into account correlate closely with the happiest.  Having been through the health scare I mentioned earlier, I can attest that access to free at the point of delivery healthcare has been crucial to both my survival and my own ongoing happiness. 

The other thing the top ten happiest countries have in common is they all have quite small populations (which would seem to be the differentiator for Germany, #16 in Happiness and #6 in HDI) and stable economies and politics (which might do it for Ireland, hit so hard by the Great Recession of 2008, #15 in Happiness and  #9 in HDI).  The happiest places to be appear to be cozy places to be: safe; prosperous; educated; tolerant and healthy; smallish with generally equal and well-regulated societies.  Oh, and they have good safety nets too.

So, if I were to make a resolution in 2018 it would be this:  Ask our Governments and representatives to start being more like Bhutan and look at Gross National Happiness across the entire population as a key societal indicator to sit alongside GDP.  Happiness is happiness regardless of wealth.  Let’s see how we can increase people’s feelings of safety across our society.  Let’s work on tolerance and diversity and let’s make sure that no one falls through the cracks because of a lack of access to affordable healthcare or education.  In the words of the late great UK comedians Morecambe and Wise:  “In this world where we live there should be more happiness…”  That’s not a bad wish for the new year.