Happiness and prosperity A ‘Chicken and Egg’ problem? | Sunday Observer

Happiness and prosperity A ‘Chicken and Egg’ problem?

24 January, 2021

Happiness depends on ourselves, on cultivation of virtue which is achieved by maintaining the balance between the excesses – Aristotle

The age-old question ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ is a paradox that has been used over the years to describe situations where it is hard to decide what to do first or what should come first out of two possible things or actions with one feeding on the other.

The most interesting quality of this paradox is that once the ball starts rolling, it certainly will be a self-propelled process where the chicken will keep giving eggs and the eggs will be giving chicks as long as the environment is suitable for hatching.

As soon as a baby is born the world gets to work on this newcomer transforming him or her from merely a biological unit into a social unit. Therefore, one might even ask; Which came first, the Individual or the Society?

Behavioural scientists say that animals in general have the capacity to learn from their past experiences and hence studying history is important in preparing for the future. But the historians themselves say that one should study the historian before one learns history from that particular individual since what he presents as history is influenced by his historical and social environment.

We encounter this paradox even within the market economy where one might ask; Who came first, the buyer or the seller? Modern-day online businesses such as Ebay and Airbnb are good examples where the sellers would use the site only if they see a significant number of buyers using the site but the buyers will use it only if they can see quite a few sellers offering competitive prices and more choices.

Therefore, which group would you get on board first and how? Of course, a study of the history of such businesses will show that starting small, offering irresistible deals to one group first and perseverance are some of the key factors in their success.

Happiness and prosperity

That means the business owner only has to make sure that the environment is suitable for reproduction of sellers and buyers both. For the owner of the site, there is no difference between the two groups. They are all his customers using the services of his business, which facilitates the interaction between the two groups. A buyer at one point may very well be a seller at a different point and vice-versa.

At this juncture, which is perhaps the most important after WWII, we are faced with the gruesome task of resuscitating the economic activities of the world. After virtually being in an economic coma for several months, understanding what to do first in terms of bringing happiness and prosperity back to people’s lives is of paramount importance.

Though it may look like these two aspects of life go hand-in-hand, it is not an easy task to start with either one when we do not have access to both of them. One without the other certainly might prove to be futile.

Happiness of a human being has been a subject of interest of philosophers, psychologists, economists and leaders of nations going further beyond 500 BC.

The two main identifiable categories of happiness, hedonism (short-term pleasure) and eudaemonism (long-term well-being through actions based on ethics and moral principles) described in the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle still remain as the two main aspects even the philosophers and economists from Jeremy Bentham to Amartya Sen would consider when they analysed the correlation between happiness and prosperity.

Even though one may see a positive correlation between prosperity and happiness at lower measures of each, the happiness doesn’t seem to improve beyond a certain level irrespective of the growth of the level of prosperity.

In order to measure happiness it has to be well-defined.

Meaning, it should have a scientific definition that can be associated with certain quantifiers. This process has given rise to the idea of ‘Subjective Well-being’ (SWB) which encompasses a variety of measures of feelings of well-being, happiness and life-satisfaction. There are all kinds of different measures such as ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP) and other indicators that can be used to measure the strength of the economy.

The SWB can then be compared with the GDP or any other economic indicator as necessary. What the planners have to be aware of is that even though all these indicators count for quantifiable economic activities, they can not measure the joy of children at a playground or the quality of their education.

There certainly should be a paradigm shift in planning the post-COVID-19 economy. Instead of using the same measuring sticks as GDP and other traditional indicators, we will have to develop our own creative indicators which can clearly measure the progress of our economy towards the goals we have set (not what others set for us) with our own justifiable and meaningful definitions of ‘happiness’ and ‘prosperity’.

Human Development Index

The idea of creating alternatives for GDP to take ‘capabilities’ as well as ‘commodities’ into account was first introduced in 1980 by Amartya Sen. The first ‘Human Development Index’ (HDI) published in 1990 put the USA in the 10th place (though it was far ahead of the top 9 countries in terms of GDP) while recognising a few countries like Sri Lanka and Vietnam having exceptionally high living standards compared to their GDP rankings.

Though most of the strategies of economic revival would focus on happiness and prosperity in a hybrid form, it will be more sustainable and meaningful to prioritize ‘happiness’ over ‘prosperity’ with justifiable and meaningful definitions of both words.

A ‘Creative Economy’ would be a better antidote to low or zero growth and or post-disaster economy. In such a context, the idea of ‘Growth’ itself may have to be redefined and the indicators do not necessarily have to be the same as what they used to be.

Promoting certain sectors just for the sake of growth purely to avoid the economic stagnation would have to be avoided. Instead, a ‘creative growth’ which will require a significant investment in raising the level of independent analytical and creative thinking of the general population to a higher level would be promoted. Investing heavily on Human Resource Development focusing not only on the development of skills but also the personal and spiritual development of individuals will prove to be the most productive aspect of such an economy.

This will facilitate opportunities to elect or appoint qualified, capable, efficient and honest human beings to decision making positions, from principals of schools, governing boards, fund managers and administrative officers all the way to members of the parliament and till the leader of the country.

The Hope of citizens under such a creative economy would be to see that the funds generated in the country and all the aid coming from other countries are used wisely in a complete transparent manner with the sole intention of bringing happiness and prosperity to all the people in the country.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]