Politics vs Happiness: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

By: Sakura Koner

Edited by: Constanza Leautaud Grajales

What is happiness? Is it that last slice of pizza, the first snow of the season, a stranger’s dog wagging its tail at you, or perhaps a baby laughing? In a world where people chase the smallest vestiges of happiness, one wonders whether and how it can be defined and quantified. If happiness can indeed be quantified, what factors will play a role? Is it the state of living, poverty level, or the government taking care of the countrymen? At what point is happiness less about ourselves and more about our situations and conditions?

The World Happiness Index is a measure of the happiness or satisfaction of the people in different countries based on a variety of defined factors. One of the most important factors, which often goes unnoticed, is the role played by the government. There is a clear disparity in governmental structure between countries with higher happiness indices than lower

Finland–the world’s happiest country based on the 2021 report–scores with a 7.842 out of a total possible score of 10, not only due to its population expressing strong feelings of communal support and trust, but also because of the country’s ability to help its people navigate the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally and most importantly, Finlanders felt strongly that they were free to make their own choices, and showed minimal suspicion of government corruption. Both of these factors are strong contributors to overall happiness. On the other hand, Afghanistan, appearing at the bottom of the list, is a country wrought with internal strife featuring  government instability and rampant terrorism–as well as desecration of property. It does not help that this country’s female population continues to be downtrodden, depicting less and less opportunities than ever before in history, the most recent example being a regressive decision to revoke women having access to formal education. Thus, the stark contrast tells a very clear story of how happiness and government stability are related. 

In recent years, there has been significant progress in the global measurement and understanding of happiness. Increased data availability on individual wellbeing has allowed researchers to monitor trends, both across and within countries in order to try to understand which factors matter most.

Increasingly, researchers have found that the government institutions in the places in which people live play a large role, as do the norms and values that people absorb from them. For example, those living in Nordic countries have high levels of happiness even though these countries are not always the wealthiest. Instead, they score high in terms of well-functioning democratic institutions, and they have high levels of trust, mutual respect and support in society. Equally, countries towards the bottom of the happiness distribution tend to have higher levels of corruption, weaker institutions and higher levels of distrust towards others in society. The editors of the World Happiness Report argue that the goal of the government should be to implement those policies that are best positioned to increase happiness in society. The challenge then lies in evaluating policies based on happiness–a complex task that requires careful cost-benefit analyses in terms of the wellbeing generated per person.

To undertake these analyses, happiness researchers argue that a unified, democratic and highly comprehensive measure of happiness must be used. This measure must also capture a representative set of people. Currently, asking people to rank their life satisfaction seems to perform best when it comes to meeting all these requirements. But further efforts are needed to extend this measure to children, to those from vulnerable groups who are less represented in national surveys, and, perhaps most challenging, to consider the happiness of future generations. Lastly, the report argues that governments should not only aim to increase average happiness, but also to pay attention to those who are in misery, for example those with poor socioeconomic standing, and aim to eliminate such low levels of happiness altogether.

Making happiness a policy priority would be pioneering. If, as the editors of the report have been advocating, happiness were to become the government’s goal, many local and national priorities may change and the weights attached to various policies may shift. For example, treatment for mental health conditions may be considered just as important as treatment for physical ailments; improving non-monetary aspects of work would be seen as crucial alongside improving wages; and investments in social capital that generate cohesion and a sense of belonging may be given as much attention as investments in physical infrastructure.

But the path to happiness becoming the explicit goal for all governments is not straightforward. As the World Happiness Report argues, governments may not always have the capability to deliver on this goal effectively. The authors argue that investments in state capacities–such as the state’s fiscal capacity (its ability to raise money), collective capacity (its ability to deliver services) and legal capacity (the rule of law and regulation) capacities–are central elements in the creation of effective countries. So too, however, is the avoidance of civil war and the achievement of peace without repression.

Happier people are not only more likely to be engaged in politics and vote, but are also more likely to vote for incumbent parties. This has significant implications for the electoral incentives that politicians face while in office. There appears to be a significant electoral dividend to improving societal happiness, beyond ensuring a buoyant economic situation. Governments around the globe that are moving in the direction of focusing their policy-making efforts on population well-being are not only doing so to improve people’s happiness for its own sake, but they also appear to have electoral reasons to do so out of enlightened self-interest.

So, there is much work to be done in the next decade. For some countries, the next step may be to use happiness as a tool to prioritise policies that increase the wellbeing of their citizens. For others, the first step may be creating and cementing the institutions that can facilitate that process in the first place.


Image citation: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1208559

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