The Haves and Happiness – Wealth and Well-Being

Posted by on January 4, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

Breugel – The Peasants (detail)


In my recent trip to Borneo, I couldn’t help but notice how happy the people all seemed; Malaysian Borneo, in particular the Sabah region, is a “third world” economy, where most live in small villages subsisting on their own crop-output or small businesses to survive, but despite this, the attitude of warmth and inclusiveness is immediately apparent. Likewise, in the northern islands of Fiji, where I holidayed a couple of years back, the locals on the island of Yaqeta were a joyous and relatively happy population, despite being quite poor by any standards. In both of these populations the people have what they need, from education all the way down to food, shelter and family. From this limited viewpoint one could deduce that happiness is not dependent upon wealth, but that happiness comes from a supportive community, and access to the simple things in life. But this may be a much simpler outlook than what is required to really answer the question “Does money bring happiness?”

It has long been said that people in remote and poor villages and countries are among the happiest in the world. A Gallup Poll conducted in 2011 seems to reflect this notion, finding that Panama is among the happiest countries in the 148 surveyed. The survey is based on 5 questions:

  1. Do you feel joy?
  2. Do you feel rested?
  3. How often do you laugh?
  4. Do you feel respected by your peers?
  5. Did you learn something new yesterday?

These 5 questions are a good starting point for the question of happiness, and in the case of Panama, a country with a smaller population than the city of Melbourne, had the highest number of positive responses. This trend seemed to echo through the countries of Central America. Yet the average wage in Panama is very low in comparison to countries like the USA or Australia. Interestingly, as the article linked to above suggests, it’s not just the wealth that can make people happy. The relatively low dollar can buy much more, and the stable weather and climate provides an environment where weather is only something that needs to be worried about in weather extremes, such as a cyclone.

This pattern is similar to that in Malaysian Borneo, and in the Fijian islands. A dollar in Australia might buy you a banana, but in Borneo you could buy a whole hand of bananas (tastier than the ones we get here too), and still get change.

It has long been said that those that live a simple life are happier, while those who have to work hard to maintain wealth are miserable by comparison. This could be true if stresses connected with high-flying business are so great that they overwhelm the benefits that come with money, and maybe living simple subsistence life, while not being free of stress, offers up only stresses regarding immediate survival or daily life.

The five questions from the Gallup Poll mentioned above, when answered by a person in a wealthy situation may be answered in a totally different manner to someone in a poorer community. But it is worth noting that according to the World Database of Happiness, Panama, Canada, and Sweden all rank equally at 7.8 out of 10, while Iceland boasts 8.2, Denmark scores 8.3, and Panama’s neighbour Costa Rica comes in with a whopping 8.5 out of 10. The lowest ranking countries in this study were Togo, Tanzania, Berundi, Benin, and Zimbabwe, all scoring 3 or less out of 10, and all countries with a lower socio-economic standing in the world stage. These five countries also have particularly lower life expectancies than, for instance, the USA (77.9 years), all 55 years or lower. Based on this, one could easily draw a conclusion that life expectancy and happiness levels are linked somehow, and that wealth causes people to consider themselves happy.

But this is all speculation. It seems that “happiness” as a subset of well-being is as difficult to measure as any other relative state of being. And the degree that money brings happiness is just as subjective. However, there is a point where money means not having to worry about where your next meal comes from, and this affords you certain privileges that those without money may not have. And where once we may have had to struggle with day-to-day living on the level of a subsistence farmer, these days many of us fill our lives with trivialities.

In a consumerist society it would be fair to say that we fill our lives with distractions. I often wonder if I didn’t spend so much time on Twitter, or working, or playing PS3, would I be happier? Would I achieve more? Who knows? This will never be the situation, except in the case of an unexpected windfall, but it is worth considering. How much of what we have in a consumerist society actively lends itself to our well-being?

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  1. I think we tend to romanticize the other side of the fence. Sure I hate consumerism, religion, right-wing politics and discrimination.

    But would I be happier to live a subsistence life? I don’t know. Probably not. I hope I never get to find out.

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