The world, despite many setbacks, is becoming happier

High moments aside, do we know what happiness is? Is the world becoming a happier place? Are we happier than our parents’ or grandparents’ generations? What could give us a little more happiness?

“Homo Sapiens has been around for about 8,000 generations and for most of that time life has been rather unpleasant. Most humans who have ever lived have done so under despotic regimes”, wrote Stephen Krasner in Foreign Affairs in March 2020. Life expectancy, he points out, didn’t begin to increase until 1850, just seven generations ago, and accelerated only after 1900. It is still accelerating. Before then the average person, according to rough and ready statistics, lived for only 30 years, although high infant mortality, deaths in childbirth and men fighting at war made that average figure as low as it was; a proportion still managed to reach their seventies. Pandemic diseases, of which the worst was the Black Death, were common. As for income, only in the last century or so has per capita income grown significantly, with the exception of the time of the Black Death when so many workers died that employers had to up the salaries they paid in a competitive bid for labour. Violence was almost universal for most of mankind’s history. There was no such thing as the rule of law in Europe, although the Church preached Christian values, which did have an impact on personal behaviour, but not much on the state and its armies.

Democracy in which the often-arbitrary authority of the state and upper class was constrained, was for most of history considered to be impossible. Law that (theoretically) is applied to all is a recent and unique development.

Only when modern democracy was born in the New England colonies in the US in the 1630s, in which the authority of the state and upper class were constrained, did the middle classes gain the power to set their own laws and rules. But it took until 1788, when the constitution of the USA was published, for the world to have the first formal blueprint for a modern democracy. (Universal suffrage for males arrived on the scene much later, first in France in 1848 and for both males and females in New Zealand in 1893, in Finland in 1906 and, finally, in the US in 1965.)

Did democracy bring more happiness? Did the pursuit of human rights bring more happiness? Nobody can prove that it did since the subjects weren’t formally studied until recently, but the presumption must be that they did since having a say in society and having a large amount of freedom without repression are basic instincts.

I must add a caveat to all the above. I’m writing mainly about Europe. Until four centuries ago Europe’s achievements in science, inventions, medicine and the organisation of society lagged behind the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and later, the Arabs and China.

I recall thirty-five years ago an article on happiness published by Geraldine Norman, the art salesroom correspondent of the London Times. I haven’t seen it bettered. She had just been to Africa for her honeymoon and being a rather bookish sort of a woman took with her the Penguin introduction to psychology and books on statistical game theory, anthropology, economics and comparative religion. After all this heavy reading, no doubt interspersed with long walks up the paths that stretch aside the Victoria Falls and, I suppose, some canoodling with her new husband, she came up with six principal factors that appeared to be universal requirements for a happy life:

1) Understanding of your environment and how to control it

2) Social support from family and friends

3) Species drive satisfaction, in particular sex and parental drive

4) Satisfying of drives contributing to physical well-being- eating, sleep, exercise etc.

5) Satisfaction of aesthetic and sensory drives

6) Satisfaction of the exploratory drive- creativity, discovery and, one should add for the likes of Messrs Trump and Biden, the pursuit of political power

She then weighted these, dividing one hundred points between them, giving the most points to physical wellbeing. “Better red than dead”, she wrote at the time of the Vietnam War. Next, she looked at individual countries and, on deciding how much they had of each virtue, multiplied the total. In this somewhat arbitrary but engaging way she decided that Botswana, then a ridiculously poor country, scored higher than Britain.

Since then there have been numerous attempts to quantify happiness or, at least, progress. My favourite for the last two decades has been the Human Development Index, thought up by the Pakistani economist, the late Mahbub ul Haq and the Indian Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen. It is brought up to date every year by the United Nations Development Programme. Essentially it tries to measure the rate of progress for countries not, as is traditional done, by looking at national income but by substituting the yardstick of quality of life. Thus, momentum in improving life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy and the status of women become the key criteria. Not surprisingly, Canada, Japan and the Scandinavian countries end up trumping the United States, the richest country in terms of average incomes.

More recently came a thoughtful analysis in the British journal, Prospect, by an American writer, Robert Wright. Provocatively, he compares happiness in the Third World with that of the rich world. “Indonesian workers want to raise their income by moving from farm fields to Nike factories. Nike customers want, well, they want a shoe that has not just a generic “Air Sole”(old hat) but a “Tuned Air Unit” in the heel and “Zoom Air” in the forefoot.

His thesis is straightforward: “Once a nation achieves a fairly comfortable standard of living, more income brings little, if any, additional happiness.” The point where wealth ceases to imply more happiness, he suggests, is around $10,000 per caput annually- roughly where Greece, Portugal and China were until recently. Therefore, in terms of psychological pay-off, the benefits of growth go overwhelmingly to the world’s lower classes, nations with a per capita income under $10,000.

Still, he concedes, even in wealthy societies the affluent are a bit happier even if there is a per capita income level beyond which more money brings “declining utilitarian bang per buck”. Even so it raises the questions if making more money improves happiness even a bit why doesn’t the U.S. collectively get happier as it gets richer? The answer seems to be that what gratifies people at this level is not their absolute income but their ability to point to an improved relative position- I’m better off than Mr Jones. So, in this situation one man’s gain is another man’s loss. A zero-sum game. Compare this with developing countries where, as they become more educated and healthier, have better nutrition and build, as is usual with economic progress, a more democratic society, more disposed to respecting human rights, they increase their happiness without reducing anyone else’s.

Of course, in the mad world we live in, fast economic progress for the poorer nations can at an early stage in development throw up problems that neutralize some of the happiness achieved- pollution, crime, worsening weather patterns, abandoned children, drug trafficking and so on. As the already rich nations discovered in the mid eighteenth century the industrial revolution can be a cruel business. If societies are sensible -as say South Korea, Botswana and Taiwan have been and as say Brazil and Nigeria are not- they will learn some lessons from the experience of the rich world- most importantly to favour the development of small farmers, the education of young girls and the concentration of resources in the villages not cities. Industrialisation should be built on this base.

There is a lot we now know about achieving happiness. Whether we want to apply it is a political judgement. At the moment things don’t look propitious. President Joe Biden has had great difficulty in passing legislation that will help the poor, although he had had some recent successes. His future Republican opponent will seek to undermine that if elected. In the UK in the present contest to be prime minister both contenders seem not to understand how much the standard of living for poorer people, partly because of the pandemic, partly because of supply problems and partly because of Brexit, is plummeting. In France, President Emanuel Macron began his tenure by implementing tax cuts that helped the better off.

Maintaining the forward momentum of the last two hundred years in a time of climate warming, new large-scale pandemics, economic and financial upheaval, the Russian threat to use its nuclear weapons, the clash between China and the US and the mutual hostility of India towards Pakistan and China, three nuclear armed nations, and the present-day decline of democracy (although for 65 years after World War 2 it spread) will be extraordinarily difficult. We are more than challenged if mankind’s happiness is to be assured, even expanded, in the era in which we live.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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