Whoever has been doing badly during the recession, it is not the happiness industry. The global glee club keeps pumping out studies from every point on the spectrum of human feeling, from the discontents of the liberated American woman to the sunny satisfaction of the average Costa Rican.
Yes, Costa Rica is top of the pops in the world of wellbeing as measured by both the Happy Planet Index (HPI) and the Happiness Adjusted Life Years (HALY) index developed by the Erasmus University at Rotterdam. (The great Renaissance humanist would no doubt approve of this effort.)
Citizens of the small but nicely located Central American state report the highest general satisfaction with life in the world with a score of 8.5 out of 10, beating even the famously contented Scandinavians (Denmark 8.3) and well ahead of their American neighbours (7.4).
When longevity is correlated with the satisfaction index, Costa Ricans take the HALY first prize with an average of 66.7 happy life years compared with the US average of 58 and the mere 12.5 years of happiness that the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe (in the last place) can expect.
What is it about Costa Rica that makes life there so good? It can’t be wealth since is still a developing country with between 16 per cent and 24 per cent of the people living in poverty. True, it is developing rather well, with a booming tourist industry based on its natural endowments. Indeed, the economic incentive to maintain its natural environment is one reason that life there is pleasant and the main reason that Costa Rica tops the Happy Planet Index. It has an ecological footprint less than one-quarter the size of the US (in 114th place) and comes very close to the HPI standard of consuming only its fair share of the Earth’s resources.
Having a small eco footprint is not much comfort to the poor, of course, but not all Costa Ricans below the poverty line are miserable. Mexican researcher Mariano Rojas found that only 24 per cent of them rated their life satisfaction as low, compared with 18 per cent of people in the non-poor category. Professor Rojas points out that a person can be satisfied with his life even if his income is low, as long as he is moderately satisfied in other areas such as family, self esteem, health and having a job. Mexico, by the way, is in the top 10 of nations measured by happiness, despite its struggle with poverty and other serious social problems.
So there is a lot more to happiness than meets the eye, or that can be measured by GDP. Economists have been onto this for a while and now politicians — goaded by the threat of climate change, the financial crash and rumblings of discontent within their own populations, among other things — are catching on. French President Nicolas Sarkozy seized the initiative and commissioned a report measuring economic progress against social indicators affecting human wellbeing, which has been discussed at an OECD forum held in Busan, South Korea, during the past few days. (Korea: HALY rating 46.9.)
While the rich nations mull over their ratings post-Busan, contradictory reports are circulating about the happiness of their people. Most of them loyally report being happy enough — 86 per cent of New Zealanders, for example, ticked the “satisfied” or “very satisfied” boxes in the country’s first general social survey, even though 54 per cent of couples with children reported major problems with housing.
Elsewhere women are said to be less than thrilled with their liberated lives. Having a child is guaranteed to increase their misery, according to some experts, although at least one researcher finds that it increases parental happiness — under certain conditions.
University of Pennsylvania economist Justin Wolfers, a co-author of a research paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”, said in a recent Time Magazine dossier that this phenomenon — paradoxical because of all their gains in freedom, education and economic power — was universal among American women. “We looked across all sectors — young vs. old, kids or no kids, married or not married, education, no education, working or not working — and it stayed the same,” he said. Women were less happy than three or four decades ago — and less happy than men! And this is happening in other developed countries as well.
No-one is sure exactly how to interpret the data but everyone has his or her own opinion. The standard explanation is the “second shift” that women do at home after their day job at the office. Former Gallup researcher Marcus Buckingham, who has a new book out called Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, disputes this on the ground that the trend is towards more parity between men and women in household tasks; he puts women’s discontent down to the stress of making choices from the array of roles available to them today. Women are being “driven to distraction” by it, says Buckingham. (That a male would dare offer an opinion on a “women’s issue”, let alone write a book about it, is an indication in itself that some kind of crisis is upon us.)
Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton University and the other author of the “Paradox” paper mentioned above, maintains that, “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,” although she acknowledges that very few people would say as much or even feel it.
In fact, when asked about the most important things in their lives, most people place their children near or even at the top of their list. If at the same time they report less happiness than before they had a child/children, this probably has more to do with other variables in their lives. A new study by Luis Angeles from the University of Glasgow, based on the British household survey, found that marital status had a decisive influence on whether the addition of a child brought its parents more or less happiness. Dr Angeles says that for married individuals of all ages and married women in particular, children increase life satisfaction and life satisfaction goes up with the number of children in the household.
Factors such as age, education and income count also, and one can well understand that today’s mortgaged-to-the-hilt and job-insecure couples are scared of the effects of a baby on their finances, if nothing else. Still, Angeles findings suggest that the creep of non-marrying culture could be affecting mood change among women, as well as the small family trend.
Costa Ricans, by the way, have more children on average (2.14) than Americans and the other most developed countries and a younger population (median age 27.5). That should help keep them cheerful.
What moral can one draw from these admittedly very partial facts? Probably, as the man who wrote the book about women indicated, happiness boils down to making choices. It is all very well to have a lot of things to choose from but, in the end, you have to choose some things and not others.
Now, when governments are opening the door to quality of life values, is the time for those who know what they want in the way of family life to make themselves heard. Otherwise they might find that the eco-footprint minimalists are walking all over them.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.