Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, put the pursuit of happiness as one of the unalienable rights for human beings, on a par with life and liberty. Research on happiness presented in a paper by Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca, Economics Department, University of Milan Bicocca , based on the question : "Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy, or not at all happy?" has shown some interesting results. " In thirty surveys over 25 years (from 1946 to 1970 in the US) per capita real income rose by more than 60 per cent, but the proportion of people who rated themselves as "very happy", "fairly happy" or "not too happy" remained almost unchanged. This finding is applicable to all the OECD countries where the aggregate happiness level has not risen in line with improvement in per capita real income" .
So why are we (US and the west) so obsessed with economic growth? Across countries however, "there is a positive and strong correlation between "GDP per capita and subjective well being". It is clear that once basic needs are met, the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and the happiness level becomes static. The paper identifies that our happiness is not based on the acquisition of wealth but on "the gap between income and material aspirations. To the extent that aspirations rise together with income, subjective satisfaction may remain unchanged as income rises". The narrower the gap the more satisfied we are and the happier we become. This could be summed up by an old Arabic proverb: "Contentment is an inexhaustible treasure"
We have become consumer junkies seduced by advertising into believing that if only we could have their latest product we could be happy, only to discover that the euphoria is transitory, lasting for only a short period of time. The effect is similar to that of a drug addict, needing another fix when the effects of the first dose have worn off. The research identifies television as the main contributor to dissatisfaction, thus negatively influencing our happiness level. It "creates discontent by bombarding us with images of body shapes, riches and goods we do not have. It does this both in TV drama and in advertisements". When one considers that " the average American family watches more than seven hours per day", its enormous influence can then be appreciated.
The other factor that widens the gap of discontent is the disparity between the rich and the poor. A government that is genuinely interested in the happiness of its population is one that addresses that gap. This is particularly the case if the gap reaches a point where the basic needs of large numbers of people are not met, through unemployment and house repossessions for example, as is the case in the US in the current economic climate. Significant improvements in happiness levels could be achieved for a modest increase in the income of the very poor.
The increase in US GDP over the years should have been used to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, as this is a potent driver of dissatisfaction leading to unhappiness. Instead, we have seen the numbers of the super rich increase alongside poverty of third world proportions. Combine that with television advertising showing the fabulous life style of billionaires, and advertising that tempts people to buy the latest "essential' gadget, and the gap between income and material aspirations is forever becoming wider with time.
This dissatisfaction and unhappiness will eventually bubble to the surface in society with anti social behaviour, crime and civil unrest that will make life uncomfortable and challenging for the rich and the middle classes, thus impacting negatively on the whole of society. How can I enjoy a theatre visit in London when I come out of the theatre and see people sleeping in shop doorways?
Capitalism needs to be regulated and controlled, and advertising needs to be made more realistic. The state should be involved in helping the poor and the needy to attain a basic standard that affords them human dignity compatible with a rich democratic society. Our collective humanity requires us to do that. Our taxes (US and the west)should also be spent supporting the poor in the developing world to help them satisfy their basic needs, where we know it will have its greatest impact on improving their level of happiness.