Opinion: Why happiness does not matter for the problem of poverty.

As shown in our post “Is there more to life than money? Mapping happiness of people and planet”, several attempts have been made to measure happiness and wellbeing globally. However, consensus proved elusive since different studies brought very diverse results. That is because happiness is a very hard thing to define – if it had a clear, objective definition, our lives would be a lot easier, wouldn’t they? Still, there are several working definitions, and most of them can be grouped in either of the following two categories. On one hand, there is a happiness that relates to one’s satisfaction with their lives. That often involves a feeling of having achieved one’s goals in life, having an option not to work in an extremely degrading job, having good relationships, etc. On the other hand, there is a more emotional happiness. That is much more momentary, it is the “state of mind of feeling good”. According to the latter definition, one’s happiness would be measured by how often, how intensely, and for how long one “feels good”. 

According to the “life satisfaction” definition, represented in the Happy Planet Index “wellbeing” section, Scandinavian people are generally at the top, and Sub-Saharan Africans at the bottom. According to Gallup’s more “emotional” definition, Latin Americans score the highest in positive emotions, and at the bottom we find countries like Singapore, Azerbaijan, and Serbia, which does not seem to constitute a clear pattern. For negative emotions, the Middle East leads the list. Given the diversity of definitions, it would seem wrong to claim that Scandinavians are happier than Latin Americans or vice-versa. And this ‘non-comparability’ of happiness seems valid for other situations as well. It would be weird to compare the happiness or unhappiness of a 10-year-old with a 70-year-old. Similarly, how fair and respectful would it be to say that the unhappiness of a poor, physically able person is bigger than that of a rich, physically disabled person? Not very much.

But as much as we avoid comparisons, one big question still remains: Are the rich really happier than the poor? Should we just help reduce whichever type of unhappiness we choose? This leads to a question of values. In poor societies, despite the suffering brought by uncertainty and the lack of resources, it is common to find great wellbeing due to close family relationships or to lower aspirations. For the contemporary elite, on the other hand, there is the widespread stress due to the pressures brought by individualism and competition. We have to be smarter than the person sitting next to us for a more successful career, and we are often very worried about our image. In the end, richer countries do have higher rates of depression, anorexia and teenage suicides than poor countries. Poor countries, however, have lower averages of access to health care, education, and subsistence needs. The point is that the question of happiness between rich and poor is not as self-evident as many people claim it to be, for either side. So does that mean we shouldn’t address poverty, or at least not prioritize it as a global goal?

Absolutely not. Firstly, poverty is an undeniable source of suffering that affects an enormous number of people on the planet. It affects the basic necessities of human survival, including food, water, shelter, and health. Whether you are a dying, starving child in Liberia or a poor worker in the United States, these basic needs are either unmet or in a constant threat. And the pain caused by that is independent of how happy or unhappy you are. Secondly, our concern for the poor can come simply from a realization of how unjust poverty is. In a world where there is a lot more than enough food for everyone, the fact that one seventh of the population is hungry is not right. In addition, many argue that the huge inequality of wealth is in itself unfair, since, for example, if a few billionaires donated a relatively small part of their wealth, many, many lives could be saved. Therefore, the apparent simplicity of the problem of poverty, together with its massive scale, should cause us to address it without needing to define, measure, or locate happiness in the world.


How should we look at happiness globally and how does it affect poverty eradication? Leave a reply below.

Allan Spessoto is a Research & Communications intern at the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD)


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