Does money make you happy? Experts say there’s more to life than that

by Joseph D'Urso | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 7 August 2014 15:33 GMT

Youths run along sand dunes at Atalaia beach in Salinopolis, Para state, at the peak of Brazil's summer vacation season. Picture July 27, 2014, REUTERS/Paulo Santos

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UN, academic experts say happiness, life satisfaction better measures of quality of life than GNP

"The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country," said U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy three months before he was assassinated in 1968.

While stopping short of Kennedy's assertion that GNP "measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile", experts recently debated in London some of the problems with income-centric measures of human progress. Do they really capture the health of a country and its people? How accurate is the picture that is painted?

The starting point for the discussion was the 2014 UN Human Development Report (UNHDR), which makes extensive use of the Human Development Index (HDI). The index, used by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) since 1990, incorporates factors like health and education as well as income.

Norway ranked top of the index in 2014, followed by Australia and Switzerland, while Niger ranked bottom, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic just above.   

Yet the UNHDR's main author Khalid Malik admitted that where a country was ranked in the U.N. human development index may not tell the full story of what was going on within its borders, and cited the Arab Spring states as an example.

"Why did it (the Arab Spring) take place in countries which have relatively high human development levels?" Malik asked. "Well, if you get all the data, you see it took place a lot because of the gap between jobs and educated people not getting good jobs."

University of Oxford professor Frances Stewart agreed, saying there was a weakness in just looking at a level or a state of human development.

"You might be going along just fine and then Gaza hits you. You see all those schools that have been turned to rubble, the hospitals that have been turned to rubble, what was the meaning of human development if we don't worry about the vulnerability?" Stewart said.

Professor Richard Layard works on mental health issues and the economics of happiness. He co-edited the 2012 World Happiness Report, which methodically ranked countries based on the reported life satisfaction of their citizens.

"I think that the world will become a better place when governments and international organisations worldwide select a single concept of human wellbeing as a thing they are trying to promote," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I think that the concept of life satisfaction is the one which is the most fruitful."


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