Track a nation’s well-being? Start with joy, not GDP

Track a nation’s well-being? Start with joy, not GDP

SINGAPORE - British economist Andrew Oswald awaits eagerly the day when the central bank of every country will take to announcing its economic health based on the heart rates and blood pressure readings of its people, instead of the usual GDP and unemployment figures.

GDP, or gross domestic product, is the sum of a country's officially verified earnings from its goods and services, typically for a year. It is a gauge of how strong an economy is.

Professor Oswald, 60, is a pioneer in studying how much people's happiness is affected by the rise and ebb of economic tides. His big idea, then, is that governments should measure regularly how stressed or relaxed their peoples are to design economic and social policies that improve the quality of their lives.

For example, his studies have shown that the soaring unemployment rates in Europe since the 2008 global financial crisis depress those with jobs almost as much as those without work. Such grimness dampens productivity badly, pulling already ailing economies down further.

Using GDP as a measure of a country's well-being is wrong, he says, because economists such as Prof Richard Easterlin and Prof Armin Falk have found that people are happier when they have the one up on others. As he points out: "With GDP, all boats rise but, unfortunately, people are more concerned with the size of their boats."

This don from the University of Warwick was on his third trip to Singapore late last year to give talks here, as well as to study the country's high home ownership rates.

He became interested in the impact of personal happiness on the economy in the early 1990s, after debunking the prevailing view then among economists that those who are jobless are jobless because they have chosen not to work.

He recalls: "I was very interested in unemployment at that time because it seemed to produce a great deal of harm in the world. But the view of the University of Chicago school of economics then was that most people who are unemployed have chosen to be unemployed because they are unwilling to take on other jobs... (and are) happy being unemployed."

Prof Oswald's research not only found no proof that those on unemployment benefits were disinclined to look for work, but also showed that being jobless was on a par with severe illness and a painful divorce, akin to serving the worst blows to a person's mental health.

He says: "Only 20 per cent of the impact had to do with a drop in income, Eighty per cent had to do with losing their sense of meaning, their sense of identity and their sense of worth."

He says that stems from humanity's innate fear of falling behind others. Consequently, he has found, most people are much happier when they outperform others, no matter how small the reward is for doing so.

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