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It's the society, stupid!

By Geoffrey Woolcock - posted Wednesday, 25 July 2007

There’s no shortage of reminders that we’re in the midst of an economic boom but do they tell us the full story?

Recent research findings give us all pause to think what exactly we define as progress in Australia. The Australian Childhood Foundation’s annual survey of more than 600 children aged 10 to 14 reported the alarming finding that a quarter are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they reach adulthood.

Other recent evidence undeniably links longer working hours with a breakdown in social and family relationships, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission president arguing that this is "not just a matter of personal happiness; it's a matter of economic and social wellbeing".


These insights into contemporary social life in Australia appear simultaneously as virtually every economic indicator heralds the boom times, captured by the Business Review Weekly’s latest headline “a beautiful set of numbers” trumpeting the record number of Australian billionaires, following up on the Macquarie Bank’s annual revelation of its obscene executive salaries.

Yet as Australia has become richer economically, there is gathering evidence - most notably through Clive Hamilton’s best-seller Affluenza and 2003 Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley’s Children of the Lucky Country? - that its people are no happier, relaxed or comfortable.

Leading weekend newspaper feature stories have felt compelled to ask such questions as “we’ve never had it so good, so why are we still unhappy?” Inevitably there has been a backlash to this perceived lack of gratitude, whether it be the incumbent federal government, clearly riled by polls showing the opposition capitalising on the populace’s general unease about the future, to popular literature such as Cassandra Wilkinson's Don’t Panic: Almost Everything is Better Than You Think who denounces the “toxic coalition of anti-capitalist and anti-modern commentators [who] would have us believe that Australia's economic success has caused a tidal wave of human misery".

But if the “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra is looking less the electoral bankroller than it was, is the rapid growth of studies and businesses attempting to understand what really makes us happy going to provide a desirable alternative?

There certainly are warning signs that we have learnt little about the perils of material prosperity and its promised path to happiness and well-being, exemplified by the astounding popularity of the self-help documentary The Secret, a quasi, New Age philosophy positing the concept that people's feelings and thoughts can attract real (invariably material) miracles into their lives.

And yet these mirages fly in the face of the paradox driving the explosion of studies that show little connection between wealth and happiness, the most notable being the highly influential British economist Lord Richard Layard’s Happiness, who convincingly demonstrates our inability to recall or predict what actually makes us happy.


Given that ultimately happiness is an entirely subjective phenomenon, perhaps true understanding of individual happiness is mistaking the means for the ends. Various social movements, most prominently the environmentalists, have long questioned untrammeled growth and continue to provoke us to engage instead in a much broader debate about how whole societies define and measure progress, beyond the baseline index of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

These questioners are starting to come from more diverse places, whether it be a few private sector corporations increasingly influenced by the social aspects of triple-bottom line accounting or the Australian Bureau of Statistics whose Mapping Australia’s Progress is lauded internationally for its efforts to collate an impressive array of non-economic measures such as volunteering and perceptions of trust and safety.

But the rub for governments in publicly presenting such indicators is in the inclusion of some of the more confronting aspects of progress, including measures of citizenship, human rights and democracy. Incorporating these aspects into 100 indicators of well-being across 18 of the 30 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the economists Rod Tiffen and Ross Gittens in their 2004 book How Australia Compares, ranked Australia a lowly 15th.

These broader ambitions in measuring wellbeing were the focus of a major OECD conference held last month, Measuring the Progress of Societies, challenging the world’s sharpest statistical minds to answer the key question: how can we measure how our societies are really doing?

The conference undoubtedly helped elevate the political importance of long-standing alternative measures to the GDP such as the Genuine Progress Index and the Global Peace Index, as well as the impressive work establishing community indicators of sustainable progress emerging in Australia.

There is much to be achieved but if such gatherings are to be effective, they will help elevate fundamental markers of progress like bridging the vast discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ life expectancy to start competing alongside the earnest daily recital of the fortunes of the Nikkei, Dow Jones and All Ordinaries indices. And they might also do justice to the famous libertarian philosopher J.S.Mill’s thoughts dating back to the 1850s: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”

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First published in The Courier-Mail on July 18, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Geoff Woolcock is the Senior Research Fellow at Wesley Mission Brisbane (WMB) and the Queensland convenor for the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY).

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