It has been frequently said that money is not the key to happiness, and although more often than not this seems to many of us counterintuitive (money is after all, what so many of us consciously strive for), most of us know, deep down that once you get beyond the essentials of life, there is something more to happiness than money and the material things it buys.
Lord Layard, professor at the London School of Economics, put this concept that money doesn’t buy us the perfect lives we want as one of the central tenants in his book Happiness. As Western societies have grew in wealth and individuals accumulated more and more wealth, levels of depression and anxiety rose, proposing the perplexing paradox of consumerism and free market capitalism… that the more wealth we acquire does not positively correlate with rising levels of happiness.
As Alain De Botton has highlighted, with increased wealth in society often comes status anxiety and unhappiness. But what’s the alternative? We don’t actually want to live in a society that eschews wealth and progress? No, most of us don’t, but maybe we need to look more in depth at what does make us happy.
This is where Oxfam are stepping up to the mark and are attempting to provide a more encompassing picture of what it is that makes us happy, with the Humankind Index. This is a fresh way of measuring what makes life good, and while it takes money into account it also looks at more than economic indicators as to what makes a happy society.
The Humankind Index is being rolled out across Scotland but if successful will provide a useful measure that could be used across the UK. To gather the information for the index Oxfam held ten street stalls, eight community meetings and ten focus groups across Scotland. Welcoming the views of more than 1,000 people via an online survey and the feedback of a packed event at the Scottish Parliament, Oxfam have created a large sample of Scottish societies’ happiness, from which a wealth of statistics will be mined.
Oxfam has worked to tackle poverty in Scotland since 1996 (having worked on international poverty for many years prior to that). Through its work with communities and individuals experiencing poverty it has come clear to Oxfam that economic growth, regeneration, and anti-poverty policies are not having a sufficient impact on reducing poverty, and have largely been premised on economic growth, especially consumption-based activities.
This type of economic development, based around consumption, often serves to intensify anxiety for those who cannot consume – who either fall deeper into debt in an attempt to participate, or find themselves marginalised and feeling inadequate. Oxfam hope the Humankind Index will remind policy makers that the economy should serve the people, not the other way around.
Oxfam believe that the evidence shows us that once people have enough to meet their basic needs and are able to survive with reasonable comfort, higher levels of consumption or income do not lead to higher life satisfaction or greater wellbeing. Oxfam hopes that as the ethos of the Humankind Index catches on and policies are enacted that reflect its components, the stress and anxiety associated with living on a low income in a society that seems to judge each other according to status and material possessions will be reduced. This will only happen by moving public perceptions away from consumption as key to individual success and value, and by reducing anxiety over status.
Oxfam are working on the index with representatives from all the major political parties, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Poverty Alliance, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, Scottish Business in the Community, Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and experts in specific areas that impact prosperity (such as human rights and equalities).