Why we should not be happy about feeling so happy

4 September 2017

When it comes to measuring national contentment, we need to ask the difficult question about what underpins it, argues Ross McDonald.

The World Happiness Report 2017 ranks New Zealand eighth in the world for happiness, behind Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada. But don't get too excited, says Ross McDonald. The report doesn't tell the full story.

First published in 2012, in support of the UN High Level Meeting on happiness and well-being, the report uses six key variables to predict levels of happiness: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, perceived lack of corruption, freedom to make life decisions, and generosity – as measured by donations.

"It makes for interesting, but somewhat complacent, reading, " says Dr McDonald, a Senior Lecturer in the Business School's Department of Management and International Business.

"It is all too easy to miss the fact that in all of the top countries, high levels of happiness are supported by high levels of long-term ecological recklessness and a widespread blindness to the inherent inequities of the global order," he says.

Though the World Happiness Report's authors claim that "happiness is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy", McDonald says it would be better read alongside two related reports – the Living Planet Report and the Happy Planet Index.

The first, by the World Wide Fund for Nature, analyses the ecological footprint of a nation's lifestyle, and finds that those considered happiest are enjoying life at levels of consumption and ecological impact that are unsustainable.

The second, calculated by the New Economics Foundation, measures how much of Earth's resources each country uses, and the relative resulting happiness of their populations. In other words, the efficiency with which individual societies achieve happiness.

"Thus, if a country manages to produce high levels of the feeling of thriving with few resources and little pollution, it rises in the ranking. In New Zealand's case, we fall from 8th to 38th place as the environmental price of our happiness is taken into account," says McDonald.

Similarly, the World Happiness Report ignores the ethical requirements of justice and equity, he says.

"It is important to remember that most New Zealanders belong to the global elite, in terms of our material lifestyles. And that the miserable conditions endured by the billions who live in the world's slums are maintained by the continuing hold that advantaged nations such as ours have on the lion's share of the world's bounty."

In the end, he says, it is not only how happy a nation might be that matters, but how contented we should be with how our relative felicity is secured.

"How happy ought we to be to live in a country where the major industries – tourism and dairying – add to dangerous levels of greenhouse gases? And how happy should we be to live in a nation that corners wealth in a world crying out to be included in a more humane global order?"

Ross McDonald

Dr Ross McDonald is a Senior Lecturer in the Business School’s Department of Management and International Business.

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