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Money can buy us happiness after all

Forget all the fuss about an epidemic of depression in affluent countries. Look at the data. A modern world is a happier world. 

By Hidde Boersma 

Image: Freepik

‘We are on the brink of a psychological collapse of the Western world.’ Renowned activist George Monbiot does not shy away from hyperbole in a 2018 documentary devoted to his ideas. Monbiot, a Guardian columnist, bemoans modern neoliberal society: it is said to lead to alienation and unhappiness. Monbiot speaks of an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ afflicting the population. 

His solution? More community spirit, and a renewed relationship with nature.

Monbiot is not alone in feeling a certain discomfort about modern society. In recent times, many commentators seem to be uneasy, and they talk about the fragmentation of community life. 

And so we hear that modernity may be the main cause of depression, as author Johann Hari argues in his bestselling book Lost Connections. Even identity politics, apparently, can be traced back to what’s lost in the present-day world. According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, identity politics is an attempt to artificially recreate a lost sense of community. 

Already by 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam, in his classic Bowling Alone, had observed that Americans were becoming increasingly lonely. This was, Putnam argued, the result of technological developments, which boosted social fragmentation and reduced membership of, say, the boy scouts. 

Just for perspective: when Putnam was writing his book, cell phones were an exception and social media did not even exist. 

We often hear that modernity may be the main cause of depression and loneliness

Monbiot, Hari, Hobsbawn and Putnam may have thought they were making an original analysis, but they are part of a long tradition. As early as 1887, German philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies described how modern society exchanges Gemeinschaft for Gesellschaft, a transition from the strong family ties of the good old days to the superficial, rational, self-interested contact of today. 

Bemoaning modernity boils down to an old wisdom: money doesn’t buy happiness. The academic version is known as the Easterlin paradox, formulated in the 1970s to say that happiness doesn’t increase with income. 

But is it true? Is modern society making us lonely and unhappy, languishing in an overpriced inner-city flat, with only a smartphone, a laptop and a fancy coffee maker, but no real friends within reach? 

A look at the figures seems to disprove this idea. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that happiness decreases in a modern society. 

Bemoaning modernity boils down to an old wisdom: money doesn’t buy happiness. But is it true?

Take the figures from the World Database of Happiness, compiled by Dutch researcher Ruut Veenhoven, which has been tracking the happiness status of almost every country in the world for nearly half a century, simply by asking people to give a rating for their lives on a scale of 0 to 10. 

A dip into the database reveals a clear link between modernity and happiness, but not the one that Monbiot claims to discern. Rather, it turns out that the more modern a country is, the happier its inhabitants are.

Which country ranks on top? It’s Denmark, scoring highest with 8.2, followed by countries such as Switzerland, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Canada. 

The countries down the bottom are mostly African, including Togo, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Burundi. All the way down are the people of Tanzania with a 3.8 score. 

I myself live happily in the Netherlands. In the database, my country ranks 15th and scores a 7.6, making its inhabitants among the happiest in the world. Has this number been on the decline? No. On the contrary, happiness is increasing. As recently as 1974, not long before I was born, the Dutch gave themselves a 7.4. 

It turns out that the more modern a country is, the happier its inhabitants are

A key reason why happiness scores are higher in modern society is material prosperity. Put the gross domestic product (GDP) of countries and their happiness status together in a graph, and a tight linear relationship appears. Veenhoven and his colleagues found no evidence for the Easterlin paradox. In almost all countries surveyed, happiness continues to grow alongside increasing wealth. 

A country’s level of organisation also contributes. Good education, a free market and a functioning democracy all make people happier. Equality, more so of gender than of income, is also a factor, as is the absence of corruption. 

Another important condition is freedom, such as being allowed to choose one’s partner, job or life path. For instance, being able to get divorced and start a relationship again without disapproval contributes to happiness. 

This may explain why countries such as Singapore (ranking #65, with a 6.6 score) and Saudi Arabia (#74, 6.5) are less happy than one would expect based on their prosperity. The people there lack freedom.

Good education, a free market and a functioning democracy all make people happier

Does modern society perhaps make us feel lonelier? A look at the figures on loneliness seems to exonerate contemporary life, albeit in a less pronounced way than for happiness. 

The average number of people in Western countries by age group who feel severely lonely has been more or less stable for decades at around 8%, according to research by Jenny Gierveld, a former director of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute. If modern society made us feel lonelier, we would be seeing an uptick. 

To properly interpret figures on loneliness, it is important, Gierveld says, to determine it by age cohort, since a phenomenon such as ageing can distort the picture. Gierveld: ‘People over 75 have a higher risk of loneliness, because partners, siblings, and friends around them are falling away. If there are percentage-wise more old people in a society, loneliness seems to increase, when in fact it does not.’ 

To the extent that loneliness rises in a modern society, it’s due to an ageing population. 

The average number of people in Western countries who feel lonely has been more or less stable for decades

The importance of freedom is perhaps best demonstrated by comparative research on loneliness among the elderly in several European countries. The expectation was that in southern Europe, where family ties are strong and children often stay at home with their parents, elderly people are happier, but the opposite turned out to be true. 

‘Dutch elderly appear to feel better because they can autonomously choose to continue living independently as long as that is at all possible,’ says Gierveld. 

‘On top of that, expectations are much higher in southern countries. Elderly people there expect all kinds of instrumental informal care from their children, in the form of extensive household help, for instance. That eventually creates discontent on both sides, and loneliness. In the Netherlands, children provide more emotional care: there is time to have a cup of coffee together and catch up.’

Elderly feel better in countries where they can choose to continue living independently than in countries where they expect care from their children

Autonomy is also important for young children’s moods. Recent research by the OECD, an alliance of the 36 richest countries, shows that Dutch children are the happiest in the world, while their French counterparts are not even in the top 10. This could be traced to the way children are raised and taught. Whereas the Dutch are known to be relaxed and provide individual freedom, the French are more authoritarian and hierarchical. 

‘In the Netherlands, children are seen early on as autonomous individuals, allowed to co-decide their own lives,’ says Veenhoven, who acknowledges this isn’t so much the case in France. ‘As a result, even in later life, French people often do what is expected of them, rather than what they want. They choose the education and job their parents want them to do. This leads to more unhappiness in France.’ 

The phenomenon of freedom is a factor in human well-being that cannot be underestimated. The same is true for many refugees trying to come to Europe from Africa; they are rarely among the poorest. They often have enough food, housing and work in the place they came from. The reason they nevertheless migrate is the lure of freedom.

Autonomy is important for young children, who appear to be happier when they're allowed to co-decide their own lives rather than do what is expected of them

Freedom has had its attraction for centuries. Historian and psychologist Edward Shorter has shown that ‘the sexual and emotional desire to be free’ was a major pull factor for migration to the city in 19th century France, during the transition from a rural to an industrialised economy. 

It’s also why many Africans and Asians flock to the city. From the West, we may look somewhat pityingly at the crowded slums, but for the people there, the urban slum is a step forward from the rural village, offering possibilities and choices. Forced marriages, child marriages and female circumcision are all traditional practices that occur mainly in rural areas. They’re mostly left behind once the more modern city is reached. 

Moreover, in cities it is easier to have a different orientation or lifestyle: there is more tolerance and it is easier to find like-minded people. 

Veenhoven is convinced that people enjoy varying, self-selected contacts. Research by sociologists Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan Turner on hunter-gatherers, chronicled in their book The Social Cage, shows that hunter-gatherer living groups were held together by loose ties. It was common to switch from one nomadic-lifestyle group to another. In modern society, a reappraisal of such loose ties is occurring. 

Humans are social animals, but not herd animals.

For Africans and Asians flocking to the city, the urban slum is a step forward from the rural village, offering possibilities and choices

This does not mean that the free modern society has no drawbacks. ‘You are significantly more called upon to exercise your social capacities,’ says Veenhoven. ‘For people less equipped with that, a less free society may work better. They are the losers of modern times.’

One of the most heinous examples of this are the so-called incels, or involuntary celibates, a subculture of mostly men angry at modern society because they cannot find a partner. Both Roger Elliot, who murdered six people in California in 2014, and Alek Minassian, who murdered 10 in Toronto in 2018, identified as such.

Modernity does have features that can reinforce loneliness. For instance, the number of people living alone is rising, which increases the likelihood of loneliness. In the Netherlands, a country of 17.5 million, 3 million now live alone, compared to only 0.3 million in 1947 when the population was just over half it is now. 

That this development is not reflected in declining happiness figures is because compensatory forces are apparently stronger. Veenhoven: ‘There are no indications yet that a turning point exists, that modernity has gone too far.’

The number of people living alone is rising, which, indeed, increases the likelihood of loneliness, but apparently, compensatory forces are stronger

That modern society makes us so happy raises the question of why it has, amongst intellectuals today, such a bad image. A major reason is our tendency to romanticise the past. 

Veenhoven therefore sharply criticises Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone. ‘He only describes the things that have disappeared, not the new ones that have replaced them. Then it always gets worse.’

While associational life in the US has indeed come under pressure – and more so than in Europe – it’s been partly replaced by online communities. ‘We can be a bit scornful about social media,’ says Veenhoven, ‘but it does make us happier. Only the heaviest Facebook users show a negative effect on well-being.’ 

Romanticising the past also leads to the idea that we were all looking out for each other in a small, close-knit farming community, with nobody left behind. But we’ve forgotten life was tough back then, just as farming the land was. Supportive contacts between neighbours were usually not a free choice. 

Amongst intellectuals modern society has a bad image because of the tendency to romanticise the past

The idea that the current modern era brings mostly misery is reinforced by the way the media works. Newspapers and television show the exceptions – the wars, accidents and disasters. News consumers interpret them as if they are the norm. The result is a completely distorted picture of the state of the world. 

What doesn’t help is that the tone of the news has become more negative over the past 40 years, as a 2011 study of reporting in The New York Times found.

Moreover, the negative news fuels the so-called optimism gap. People around the world are terribly poor at assessing the state of mind of their fellow citizens. They grossly underestimate the number of people who call themselves happy. The average gap between the proportion of people who think others are happy and the actual percentage of self-proclaimed happy people is a whopping 42 percentage points.

Another misconception that gives modern society a bad image is the idea that depression is a modern disease that’s on the rise. The large number of people visiting a psychotherapist and the consumption of antidepressants are often held as signs that we’re all depressed. In fact, the rise of psychotherapy as well as antidepressants, both more available in affluent countries, have significantly contributed to growing happiness in modern societies. 

Moreover, figures from the US Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that the number of people suffering from depression fluctuates between 14 and 22% on all continents, regardless of their degree of modernity, and has, moreover, been stable everywhere for three decades. 

According to the happiness deniers, the fact that we are happy is yet another example of how unhappy we really are

A final reason for the poor image of modernity is that negativity is appealing because it carries a hint of intellect. Doom thinking is seen as profound, optimism as naive. Even when pessimists are confronted with the data on increasing happiness, they turns it to their advantage: for does modern humanity not have an ‘obsession with happiness’; are they not weighed down by the ‘cult of happiness’, as the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner claims in his book Perpetual Euphoria

According to the happiness deniers, the fact that we are happy is yet another example of how unhappy we really are. 

Despite all the doubts spread in popular culture about the link between modernity and happiness, Ruut Veehoven remains convinced: ‘Modernisation is the way to a happier life.’

Hidde Boersma is a Netherlands-based award-winning science writer and speaker. His articles appear in leading newspapers. He has several TEDx talks, including one on how to feed the world without destroying it. His documentary films include Well Fed and Paved Paradise. Hidde is part of the WePlanet campaigns team for Reboot Food. He's happy.


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