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Don't worry, we're happy

By Cassandra Wilkinson - posted Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A toxic coalition of anti-capitalist and anti-modern commentators would have us believe that Australia's economic success has caused a tidal wave of human misery. Anxiety, depression and sadness are tendered as evidence that freedom is not all it is cracked up to be.

In a 2004 discussion paper, The Disappointment of Liberalism (PDF 192KB), Australia Institute executive director Clive Hamilton declared that "the disappointments of money and freedom must be seen as a profound challenge to liberalism".

University of NSW sociologist Michael Pusey, in The Experience of Middle Australia: the Dark Side of Economic Reform (PDF 207KB) (Cambridge University Press, 2003) claims "economic reform has been imposed on people in the face of international evidence showing that economic engineering reduces happiness and causes depression".


In an article headlined "Living it up gets us down", The Sydney Morning Herald's economics commentator Ross Gittins asked "Why, now we're so much wealthier than we were, do we have more trouble, rather than less, with divorce, drugs, crime, depression and suicide? Why? What's causing this deterioration in the quality of our lives? Is it happening because of, or in spite of, our obsession with economic growth?"

But what seems to be happening is in fact not happening. The 2006 edition of the Australian Bureau of Statistics's Measures of Australia's Progress quotes the ABS 2001 National Health Survey, which found that 76 per cent of the population were "delighted", "pleased" or "mostly satisfied" with their lives.

A phoney crisis of national happiness is being manufactured to "prove" that economic liberalism causes depression, divorce, child abuse, environmental chaos, terrorism and bad manners.

In researching my new book, Don't Panic - Nearly Everything Is Better Than You Think (Pluto Press), I read a report, Happiness and the Human Development Index: The Paradox of Australia, by the American-British academic team of David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, which argued that the relatively poor wellbeing of Australians was a clear rebuttal of the rhetoric of prosperity.

I subsequently discovered that this paper was challenged by Australian-American academic duo Andrew Leigh and Justin Wolfers, who concluded that there was no paradox and that Australians were not only happy, but happier than most other people in the world.

Leigh and Wolfers, in Happiness and the Human Development Index: Australia Is Not a Paradox, found high levels of happiness were a consistent theme in Australia since the first significant cross-national happiness surveys were conducted in the 1940s.


The disconnect between the public debate and the facts is starkest in relation to children.

Melbourne's The Age newspaper, a keen peddler of the "sadness epidemic", ran a piece by journalist Simon Castles on "the suicide generation". "It is surely not a coincidence," he wrote, "that the countries that most fervently embraced individualistic, neo-liberal, market-dominated doctrines - Britain, the US, New Zealand, Australia - are the same countries that have faced crises of youth depression".

Yet the very state of childhood as we know it is a result of prosperity, not its victim. Previously, thousands of children lived and often died in workhouses, orphanages and factories, "kept essentially as slave labour ... Children as young as five years worked 16 hours a day, wore leg-irons and were beaten".

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This is an edited version of an article first published in The Australian on May 2, 2007.

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About the Author

Cassandra Wilkinson is the author of Don't Panic - Nearly Everything is Better Than You Think.

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