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On happiness

I was happy to read that the UN World Happiness Report has been released. I was not so happy to see that Australia was ranked 10th! I was not happy that Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Canada were happier than Australia, but a I was a little more happy to know Australia is well ahead of the USA (17th) and the UK (22nd).

Apparently the report uses six key variables to measure and explain a country’s happiness. These include real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.

This got me thinking about what makes for a happy life and why Australia, with such a very high standard of living, an excellent economy and a triple A credit rating, could not possibly be number one on the world happiness scale. I remember travelling in places like Tanzania, Peru and Cuba and the response local people gave us when they heard we were from Australia: how lucky we were to come from such a ‘rich’ country.

With the massive consumption enjoyed by the majority of Australians, perceived freedoms, life expectancy and plenty to go around, one would think Australians should be hilariously happy – enough to beat all other happiness contenders.

So what could be missing?

In a 1995 publication called The other invisible hand, Geoff Mulgan and Charles Landry made the following observation: “when Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ was an inalienable right, he had in mind a more public notion of happiness than we have today, a satisfaction with the performance of the society, the wellbeing of the community”.

It’s the last bit that’s of interest – happiness based on the wellbeing of the community – the wellbeing of others. That notion stands at loggerheads with the promotion of the achievement of happiness from the private pleasures of consumerism and materialism.

One of the measures used by the UN World Happiness Report is ‘generosity’.

So how does Australia rate? At a surface level, donation figures in Australia appear to be high – according to the World Giving Index, 71% of Australians give money for a cause. However the actual amount donated tells a different story. On a weekly basis Australian households spend an average of $4.44 on charitable giving. The average Australian spends more each week on confectionary ($8.10); quite a bit more on pets ($9.18); more again on cigarettes ($11.55); three and a half times more on beer and wine ($15.58); and nearly ten times more on restaurant and takeaway meals ($42.10).

Despite the fact that Australians spend more on chocolate than charity, donation rates are decreasing, and 60% of Australians are “tired” of being asked for donations. In addition, only 34% of Australians volunteer.

But there is something that will take everyone happy. The new Australian Coalition government is going to cut welfare payments and reduce the amount of money Australia donates through its overseas international aid program.

Yippee – now that makes for happiness – or does it? Perhaps that might give us some idea why we ranked 10th. Maybe Australians are miserable when it comes to generosity? Maybe Australians don’t enjoy the happiness that comes with participating generously in co-creating community wellbeing in the manner that Jefferson envisaged? Maybe riches and perceived freedom alone does not really make for an enduring source of happiness.

With the approaching season of Christmas, hopefully Australians will be looking at how much they can give instead of how much they can save. Tis the season to be jolly after all!

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