How is it that the world is getting happier? In the words of Thucydides, the secret of happiness is freedom. In each survey respondents were also asked to rate their sense of free choice in life. In all but three countries where perceived freedom rose, subjective well-being rose also. A chart, produced by the authors, shows how these increases in free choice and subjective well-being are strikingly related.
The world in which we live today is unquestionably a free one. For the first time in history, most of the world is governed democratically, the rights of women and minorities are widely acknowledged, and people, ideas and investment can cross borders. Since the study began in 1981, dozens of middle-income countries have democratised, relieving many from fear of repression: every country making a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy shows a rising sense of free choice. In addition, there has been a sharp rise in the acceptance of gender equality and alternative lifestyles. Countries where this revolution has been most pronounced, such as Canada and Sweden, continue to show rising well-being.
It would be easy to mistakenly conflate this with the view that “economic freedom” — the freedom of choice in a consumer economy — is sufficient to engender a happy populace, particularly since the people of former Soviet bloc countries have become so much happier since 1991.
In the space of two decades, several countries that were members of the Soviet bloc have become members of the European Union, with new freedoms to travel, work and live as never before imaginable. Not only has the proportion claiming to be “very happy” risen in every country except Serbia and Belarus, but this trend has been wholly driven by the younger generation. Among eastern Europeans aged 15-24, the proportion saying they were “very happy” was 9 per cent at the start of the 1990s, roughly the same as in other age groups. By 2006, this proportion had more than doubled, and steady rises were also evident among those in their 30s and 40s. Country after country in the study – Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine – exhibits this trend. Belarus stands out as an exception in changes in happiness by age (the young are still as miserable as in 1990, and the elderly only a little better off).
But as Foa stresses, the happiness the study detects is not a matter of purchasing power — it’s not merely that people are able to buy things, but they are now able to do things: “The link from free choice to rising happiness suggests that the appropriate benchmark of development is not income per capita, but individual freedoms and capabilities. This is the human development perspective associated with Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate. While income and well-being are closely correlated at early stages of development, once the threat of starvation recedes, social and political freedom appears to be as important.”
Smith notes the rising surveillance in Western society now threatens that social and political freedom. The problem is that the “economic freedom” can breed a kind of complacency while commercial interests busily promote a misunderstanding of the true source of happiness, urging us to see it in goods rather actions. These trends can conspire to blind us to how our “capabilities” become circumscribed. When the government forbids certain actions, it’s unmistakable; when actions are instead made de facto impossible by the culture industry, which schematizes for us our experience and renders it hard to conceive of alternatives, we might not be so quick to notice. This is not because things are forbidden, they just seem “unrealistic” and irreconcilable with the narratives and lifestyles mediated by our culture. It’s not that we are forbidden from an “alternative lifestyle” — it’s just that it is draining to attempt to pursue one, perpetually sapping the energy to resist other soft cultural commands about what to value, what to shun, what success means, how we should interpret our emotional reactions, and so on. We might end up mistaking complacency for a kind of happiness, even while nagged by feelings of dread and insecurity, of not not knowing who we really are since our identities are displaced to the things we own.