President, Cyril Ramaphosa should to declare a South African Happiness Month. Photo: Pixabay

CAPE TOWN – “GDP is an abstraction that has little personal meaning for individuals.” – Richard Easterlin, Professor of economics, University of Southern California.

I am calling on our President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to declare a South African Happiness Month. Business Report offers our national footprint to assist you Mr President, by monitoring the happiness of our people. I’ve done some research over the weekend, and found some amazing stats on happiness. 

There is even a global happiness index, and South Africa doesn’t feature anywhere. I’m not surprised. All that we hear on radio, see on television and read in our newspapers, day after day, centres around protest, crime, corruption, murders, rape, bank robberies, theft and so on.

We, as South Africans, demand better services, land, jobs, higher salaries and houses… Nothing wrong with that, but is it not time to ask yourself what do you, as a South African, do to build a better South Africa for all? You, President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced a Job Summit you hosted this last week. You invited captains of industry, ministers, labour organisations and the public to participate. 

The intent is clear: you want our people to have hope again. When we combine hope and happiness, we might be the most successful country in the world, don’t you think? Or do we choose to be unhappy, to burn buses, trains, libraries, schools and monuments?

The World Economic Forum recently published a document measuring global happiness. World happiness levels are at their lowest in more than a decade, with the number of people who say they feel stressed and worried rising, according to a survey. 

Conflict-hit Central African Republic was the world’s unhappiest place last year, with Iraq in second place, according to the ranking by pollsters Gallup. 

Collectively, the world is more stressed, worried, sad and in pain today than we’ve ever seen it, the group’s managing editor of Gallup, Mohamed Younis, wrote in a foreword to the study. 

Gallup surveyed more than 154 000 people in 146 countries on whether they had felt pain, worry, stress, anger or sadness the previous day. It said the global mood was at its gloomiest since the first such survey in 2006.

“For centuries, happiness was exclusively a concern of the humanities; a matter for philosophers, novelists and artists. In the past five decades, however, it has moved into the domain of science and given us a substantial body of research. This wellspring of knowledge now offers us an enticing opportunity: to consider happiness as the leading measure of well-being, supplanting the current favourite, real gross domestic product per capita, or GDP” the report states.

“Psychologists have investigated the reliability and validity of the measures and economists have studied the nature and robustness of the results. This is not the place for a detailed discussion, but we can say that the data have withstood a thorough vetting. More support comes from the fact that many countries now officially collect happiness data. The same relationships are found between happiness and a variety of life circumstances in country after country. 

“Those who are significantly less happy are typically the unemployed, those not living with a partner, people in poor health, members of a minority, and the less-educated,” Younis wrote. 

His work on happiness and income, published in an article more than 40 years ago, looked at the links between happiness and income. It found that surveys conducted at a point in time (so-called cross-section studies) discover the expected positive relation – happiness increasing with income. However, studies of happiness and income over time (the time series relationship) yield a nil relationship.

Some critics of the Easterlin Paradox report a longer-term relationship between happiness and income that is positive. These results, however, are based on data spanning a relatively small number of years, usually a decade or less, and pick up the short-term relationship – the ups and downs of happiness (and indeed GDP) that accompany economic booms and busts.

So, we can see that happiness and GDP can give quite different pictures of the trend in societal well-being. But why prefer happiness to GDP? There are several reasons.

  1. Happiness is a more comprehensive measure of well-being. It takes into account a range of concerns, while GDP is limited to one aspect of the economic side of life, the output of goods and services. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this can be seen in China where, in the two decades from 1990, GDP per capita doubled and then redoubled. Happiness, however, followed a U-shaped trajectory, declining to around the year 2002 before recovering to a mean value somewhat less than that in 1990. Economic restructuring had led to a collapse of the labour market and dissolution of the social safety net, prompting urgent concerns about jobs, income security, family, and health – concerns not captured in GDP, but which significantly affect well-being.
  2. The evaluation of happiness is made by the people whose well-being is being assessed. For GDP, the judgment on well-being is made by outsiders, so-called “experts”. There are some who think of GDP as an objective measure of the economy’s output. In fact, the numerous judgments involved in measuring GDP have long been recognised. Should the unpaid services of home-makers be included? What about revenues from drug trade or prostitution? Should the scope of GDP be the same for the US and Afghanistan? For the US in 1815 and 2015? In short, GDP is not a simple or “objective” measure of well-being.
  3. Happiness is a measure with which people can personally identify. GDP is an abstraction that has little personal meaning for individuals.
  4. Happiness is a measure in which each person has a vote, but only one vote, whether rich or poor, sick or well, old or young. Everyone in the adult population counts equally in the measure of society’s well-being. Happiness tells us how well a society satisfies the major concerns of people’s everyday life. GDP is a measure limited to one aspect of economic life, the production of material goods. The aphorism that money isn’t everything in life, applies here. 

If happiness were to supplant GDP as a leading measure of societal well-being, public policy might perhaps be moved in a direction more meaningful to people’s lives.

These are turbulent times. They have a distinct odour of vengeance and vindictiveness. And they strain the uneasy bonds that defined friends and held comrades together. This was expected. If the past decade was traumatic, this is our classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder. And we have just started. That means there is a long road that lies ahead. Our red barometer of unhappiness has shot up. Yet in the middle of it all, there are many measurable moments of respite which help South Africans heave a collective sigh of relief. They are foundations of a barometer of happiness

Some information in this article was curated from The Conversation.