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Regular version of the site

Happiness as an economic category

Renowned American sociologist and political scientist, Professor at the University of Michigan and head of the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research in St. Petersburg, Ronald Inglehart told the HSE news service about his research — the study of happiness.

Inglehart has been studying happiness as an economic category for over 40 years, advising governments of various countries how they can improve the happiness per capita ratio in their population.

— Professor Inglehart, what makes you — as an academic — happy?

— I take it very seriously, since happiness is the most important quality in society. All of us, at the end of the day, want to be happy. Some chase wealth or view being well off as a way of being happy. But that is just part of the story. In countries where people live on the poverty line, like Togo or Burkina Faso, for example, people are very unhappy. But as soon as they achieve a certain level of material wellbeing, their subjective perception shifts significantly.

— What scale do you use to measure happiness?

— In sociological terms – we carry out surveys and ask people to evaluate how content they are with their lives on a scale of one to 10. 2,000 people take part in the survey in any one country. That's not a very large sample size, but the respondents are selected from various groups, by: gender, age, education and so on. Michigan University developed a world-recognized approach to this selection process.

— What countries do you measure happiness in?

— The World Values Survey is a global study covering about 100 countries. The USSR got involved in this research in 1981, and it has been carried out regularly in Russia since then. Incidentally, I can congratulate Russians – the World Bank just re-classified Russia as a high-income country — meaning that people also get more pleasure out of life.

— So we can expect Russians to start feeling better about things?

— Yes, but we need to be ready to see how the situation develops. The process tends to go like this: once people have put the struggle for survival (subsistence) behind them, the next stage is to demand free choice – they want to live the way they want to live. And once we see increased material well-being in society, people take their own routes to happiness.

There can be several factors at play here that influence the perception of happiness. For example, there is a relationship between the level of happiness and gender equality in a country.

Members of tolerant societies are happier than people in highly intolerant societies. Tolerance here referrs to all groups: women, religious, ethnic and sexual minorities. The level of happiness in a tolerant society increases in line with two causes. First – members of groups that are under pressure in intolerant societies feel happier. Second, it's not just, for example, the gay community that feels better, heterosexuals and people from the religious and ethnic majority also feel better. It's a win-win situation, because the overall stress levels in the society are reduced, there's less negativity.

— And what comes first: greater tolerance or economic growth?

— World Values Survey research has shown that economic growth comes first, and tolerance follows. When people are poor, they are under a lot of stress and tend to only trust their own. Poor societies tend to be less tolerant than wealthy ones. A good example that most people are familiar with is that of Germany after the First World War. In the midst of a political and economic crisis, people were not just poor, they were also unhappy. As a result we saw the rise to power of one of history's most intolerant dictators – Hitler.

After the Second World War, Germany became a wealthy state. People didn't have to fight for a piece of bread. It also became one of the world's most tolerant states. So there are two things we can takeaway from that. First, the bad news – that any economic crisis leads to an increase in xenophobia. Then the good news: that improved levels of material well-being in society lead to greater tolerance. And there's also the fact that democratic socieities are happier than authoritarian ones – where both have the same level of material wellbeing.

— Does how income is generated have an impact on societal happiness levels? It's one thing to make something with your own hands, another — to inherit it (e.g. natural resource wealth).

— Yes, it does. I see that where goods are produced by individual people, then the fruits of their labour are more equitably distributed. These countries have a large middle class. And if the basis is natural resources, then the income generated is easily controlled. Just look at the Persian Gulf monarchies. Although their people are not exactly poor, the distribution of wealth ensures the continued existance of the monarchy, and does not result from individual labour.

– You're a long-time Russia watcher. Thirty years ago the USSR was materially well off, but not democratic. Then we saw living standards fall but the level of democracy rise. Which do you consider more important?

– I would be very glad if democracy made people happy, but that's not the case. In Russia the happinesss level fell during the transition to democracy.

In its early years as an independent state, Russia saw a collapse in happiness levels — falling to an all time low, to zero. The overwhelming majority of the population said that they were discontented with life, and were unhappy. By 2000, the situation had started to improve. Rising prices for oil and gas delivered higher living standards, and the coming to power of a young president delivered new hope. Since then, happiness has continued to grow. In 2011, the level of happiness had almost recovered to 1980 levels.

— Why didn't freedom give us an immediate happiness-boost?

— Russia's experience of democracy was not particularly successful. Its appearance is associated with hyperinflation, high prices and a lack of law and order reminiscent of Weimar Germany (of the 1920s). But all countries go through difficult periods.

— OK. Let's return to the here and now. Are you measuring the happiness level across the regions? Could you compare, say the happiness level of a St. Petersburg resident, Muscovite and someone in the provinces?

— Everyone understands questions about levels of happiness and living standards. You get answers that are just as good from people in the city and people in remote villages. The happiness levels are very high in Moscow, and also in Siberia. In Moscow — with all it's wealth — there is also a great deal of stress and a high cost of living. In St. Petersburg you also see a relatively high rating, although it is lower than in the capital. Of course, I think that St. Petersburg is the best place to live in Russia!

By Alexei Mironov

Photo: Dmitry Sokolov

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