What makes you happy?

What makes you happy?

The World Happiness Report ranks countries and cities in terms of how happy their inhabitants are (see Socialist Standard, December 2020). Being comfortably off naturally tends to make people happier, but it is much more than just a matter of wealth, with countries such as the US, Japan and South Korea being fairly well down the rankings. At the bottom, though, are countries where people are impoverished and often live in fear. Destitution prevents people being satisfied with their lives, but being better off does not necessarily make you more satisfied.

These issues were discussed in an article ‘High life satisfaction reported among small-scale societies with low incomes’, by Eric Galbraith and a lengthy list of co-authors, published earlier this year in the online open-access US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, volume 121, no 7.

The researchers studied nearly three thousand people in nineteen societies, consisting of Indigenous peoples and local communities, in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. This included, for instance, Tuareg in Algeria, Mongolians in the Ordos desert and farmers in Guatemala. Participants completed a survey on their life satisfaction, but because ‘only 64% of the households surveyed received any cash at all during the study period, we use the market value of persistent commercial assets as a proxy to estimate monetary income per person.’ In most cases, the estimated annual income was less than $1,000 per person. It is not stated what is meant by ‘persistent commercial assets’, but it is clear that the people studied were not well-off in monetary terms.

Higher household income generally correlated with more life satisfaction, at the level of both villages and individuals. But on the whole, the more positive aspects of a village, the happier its people were. Unfortunately, it is not explained properly what is meant by more positive aspects, except that it is not related to monetary income. And overall, at a given level of wealth, people in the small-scale societies were much happier than those studied in the larger World Happiness surveys. Some societies, though, were oppressed and marginalised, and their inhabitants were far less happy with their lot. Yet all in all, ‘remarkably high measures of subjective well-being are widespread among the 19 small-scale societies studied’.

So ‘reported life satisfaction in very low-income communities can meet and even exceed that reported at the highest average levels of material wealth provided by industrial ways of life’.

As research such as that for The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett has shown, in addition to the World Happiness Report, feelings of trust and equal treatment can be more important than actual income. Living in a society where people feel secure and help each other can be far more satisfying than having a supposedly high material standard of living. A socialist world will provide for people’s needs and wants, without being any kind of consumer paradise.


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