Skip to main content


Relativity of happiness

"I wish I had your worries," said my oldest son, when I was complaining about my present lack of focus and direction. "Then again," he added, "My worries would seem trivial to an African too."

In consequence he's just sent me an excellent upbeat article about how well Australia has done on a number of social and economic indicators over the last twenty years in comparison with other OECD countries, but also poses the question," If we have never had it so good, why aren’t we deliriously happy?"
Certainly, I would not want to be in Africa right now, or even the mean streets of Britain or the USA, but I am a bit tired of people telling me how great things are and how lucky we are. Although our individual troubles may seem trivial in comparison, I think they can be summed up as follows:
  • Firstly, it’s really hard to sing and dance and kick up your heels while you see others suffer
  •      Secondly, averages disguise great inequalities even if ours are not as great as elsewhere. 
  •       Even those lucky enough to have jobs have no security, too much stress and very little pleasure or leisure. Material progress has come at a great cost.
  •        And lastly, deep down we all sense that global economic growth is unsustainable in its present form. It seems just a question of time before it unravels, if it hasn’t already. It's a bit like playing that kid’s game. “What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?” without the fun.

Sorry, I don’t like being  an eternal pessimist. And Yes, we should celebrate the fact that we still have a few social services and our society is fairer than most; that we have less corruption and few people visibly begging or starving, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels or allow further inroads on the things which made this country good – sticking together, sticking up for your mates, equality, “a fair go,” no one too rich or too poor; being able to say what you think;  protection at law,  -but while things may be better than in a lot of other countries, we shouldn't go around congratulating ourselves either. There are still a lot of things wrong – aboriginal health and deaths in custody for instance, immigration and detention issues, the prohibitive cost of housing, disintegrating families, disintergrating infrastructure and communities and overlong working hours in the short term, and the bleak prospect of global environmental decline hanging over all of us in the future. 

There's an interesting article in the Atlantic about how Walmart may be one of the biggest influences on the greening of China. Because both are such huge players in the global economy, this could have a big impact, (especially if the Chinese government applies the same ruthless determination as it did to population issues). However, the conclusion confirms my own misgivings.

"The bitter reality is that even if unrestrained consumerism becomes less environmentally destructive per unit of production than it was in the past, it is still unsustainable in the long run. So even as this most innovative of corporate and statist green strategies may represent an environmental breakthrough and good business for Walmart, and good politics for the Chinese government, it may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.
 Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society."

Now do you understand why I am not laughing? Though that' s not to say we shouldn't be grateful for what we have, or try to make things better, or try to find a little humour and joy in our daily lives. I envy the lemmings though. I am sure it would be better not to know anything and just enjoy each day.
On the other hand, pessimists also have their uses. If there weren't screeching warning birds, we would be congratulaying ourselves all the way to the abyss. This way at least, we may be able to slow it down. To this end what we need is slow motion, less productivity; fewer hours and higher wages; big taxes on robots, polluters and international capital flows (Robin Hood or Tobin Tax) and big royalties on resource extraction either generously distributed among the whole population, the way Alaskans do it, or at least to benefit the whole population by way of education, health and infrastructure. Go to it optimists!    

And feel free to raise your objections here!