Why happiness doesn't cost any money at all

From Sunday Morning, 5:29 pm on 7 March 2021

A new study shows that people in societies where money plays a minimal role can have a level of happiness comparable to those living in Scandinavian countries which typically rate highest in the world.

The study's senior author, Professor Eric Galbraith from McGill University in Canada, first got the idea for the research when he visited Laos 20 years ago and was struck by how genuinely happy the people there were.

A pigs brought out during the official ceremonies.

Pigs being brought out during official ceremonies in the Solomon Islands. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Koroi Hawkins

The research which surveyed people in the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh found that people living in societies with no money at all can be just as happy as the wealthiest people in the world today.

Galbraith said the study looked at people's subjective wellbeing, but in the past poorer countries have often been overlooked by this type of research.

"It's been well shown in the field of subjective wellbeing that wealthy countries do tend to have populations that rate their lives more highly and this has led to a widespread belief that economic development will increase the wellbeing of people in poor countries."

But he said this overlooks those people who had managed to live for tens of thousands of years before money was invented and whose lives are organised through means other than monetary exchange.

"It's very difficult to do those kinds of studies today because there are so few of those regions left in the world."

Galbraith said that is why Solomon Islanders were surveyed.

The study also looked at a rural isolated site and a more urban site in Bangladesh.

Many volunteers went to different villages and communities with long questionnaires and asked some standardised questions, Galbraith said.

One of the key questions used in subjective wellbeing research is the overall life satisfaction rating.

"Which is basically all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? So using a scale of one to 10 where one means you're completely dissatisfied and 10 means you're completely satisfied - how would you rate your satisfaction with life as a whole?"

Galbraith said he's always surprised that most people are able to answer this question easily and that the answers within populations tend to be very consistent over time.

"So you can come back to a country where you asked 10,000 people this question a few years later and you get roughly the same answer unless something has changed in the country.

"The average answers to that question range from about 3.5 up to about eight in different parts of the world," he said.

He said the study also asked people about emotions they had felt during the day and respondents were phoned and asked how they felt at particular moments in time.

"These three different ways of measuring subjective wellbeing all converged in showing that the happiest people were actually the ones with the least use of money."

The survey found that respondents living in places which did not have money found a degree of happiness comparable with those living in Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden.

Galbraith said the survey results were totally unexpected.

"We can't say this is true of all non-monetised societies and I'm sure it wasn't, I think the western tropical Pacific is just a nice place to live, but what it shows is that it's possible."

Money leads to inequality

Asked why he thought this was the case Galbraith said it was not simply that money makes you unhappy.

"I would suggest that when countries first become monetised the processes that happen tend to make people less happy, so when we see these large numbers of low income countries where people are very dissatisfied with their lives, it may be largely related to what happens when the countries use money but have low incomes."

He said that can lead to inequality and lack of access to essentials like food and shelter.

By contrast Galbraith said Solomon Islanders are able to produce their own food, to make their own shelter and have strong communities.

"They have the elements that we see in satisfied wealthy countries that make people satisfied but the thing is they achieve those without money and importantly with very low material needs, so they have low environmental impacts."

Galbraith said wanting things you don't have is definitely a source of unhappiness.

But he said when asked the survey respondents said the things that made them happy were not material things but rather social interactions and interacting with nature.

"Just life, it was remarkable how much the Solomon Islanders just said that being alive was their source of happiness."

Galbraith said that contrasted with the more monetised communities studied in Bangladesh where people talked much more about economic success.

Lesson for those pushing traditional 'economic growth'

He said the results challenged the standard interpretation of economic data.

"It shows the simplistic interpretation of the more widespread data that's out there in the economics and the development literature, that we need to go through traditional economic growth in order to improve people's wellbeing, is not necessarily correct or the easiest way to do."

He said there are still corners of world left where the early wave of industrialisation has not yet arrived.

"I would hope that the people who are pushing economic development in those places will see these results and pause and think are there gentler ways that we can improve people's lives in these regions, integrate them with the rest of the world while not throwing out the things that already make their lives valuable."

Galbraith said the activities undertaken by people living in non-monetised societies tend to be less specialised and more homogeneous in that everyone is responsible for producing their own food.

He said that money is not bad but it is a tool that can have unintended consequences such as promoting inequality.

Galbraith said people living in monetised societies need to consider how to bring "good lives" to those who do not currently have them and also how they themselves can live a good life sustainably.

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