Material wealth contributes to only a part of happiness

The United States' real per capita income has tripled since the late 1950s, but happiness among Americans has not increased correspondingly (Why prosperity has increased but happiness has not; Aug 23).

Writer Jonathan Rauch attributed income inequality as a chief cause.

In the World Happiness Report 2018, the top 10 happiest countries are: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.

Incidentally, some of these nations have the lowest income inequality in the world. But let us not read too much into this correlation.

To go into the topic deeper, let me use the United Nations' data on R/P 20 per cent ratio - which is the ratio of the average income of the richest 20 per cent of residents to that of the poorest 20 per cent residents of a nation.

Accordingly, Finland's R/P 20 per cent is 3.9 - meaning that its 20 per cent richest residents' average income is 3.9 times that of the poorest 20 per cent's average income.

Japan has a very low R/P 20 per cent ratio of 3.4, compared with Germany's 4.3, South Korea's 4.7, United Kingdom's 7.2, and United States' 9.4.

Germany is ranked 15th in the happiness report; US, 18th; and UK, 19th. But Japan and South Korea are ranked very poorly at 54th and 57th respectively in the World Happiness Report, among the more than 150 nations ranked. Why is this so?

In compiling the happiness report, a broad range of attributes were used, including business and economic satisfaction, citizen engagement, communications, diversity, education and family, emotional well-being, environment, food and shelter, government and politics, law and order, health, religion and ethics, transportation and work.

Japan and South Korea must be scoring quite poorly in some of these attributes.

Singaporeans, ranked 34th, and Malaysians, 35th, are happier than the Japanese and South Koreans.

But Singapore and Malaysia have much higher income inequality - with their R/P 20 per cent ratio at 9.7 and 12.4 respectively - an issue both nations need to tackle.

To achieve greater happiness, nations have to improve a wide range of economic, social and political attributes, most of which are collective in nature.

The Government cannot do it alone. It requires effort from the population and communities too.

Material well-being contributes to only a part of happiness.

Understanding the constraints and the choices we have would help us set more rewarding goals in our quest for happiness.

Albert Ng Ya Ken

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2018, with the headline 'Material wealth contributes to only a part of happiness'. Print Edition | Subscribe