Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Emphasizing Well-being

In recent years, psychologists studying measures of life satisfaction have largely confirmed the old adage that money can’t buy happiness—at least not for people who are already affluent.

A nation is successful not when it’s rich but when its people are happy. If you are very poor, there is no doubt that greater income can improve your life. But once the basic needs are secured, well-being does not necessarily correlate with wealth. The social and psychological needs of human beings also shape our cultures, and help to determine whether our civilization is sustainable or not. Good life is redefining prosperity to emphasize a higher quality of life, rather than the mere accumulation of goods.

The Prime Minister is busy sketching up plans for making continuing increases in gross domestic product (GDP) as a chief priority of domestic policy, under the assumption that wealth secured is well-being delivered.

Whether due to curbs on hundi business as a post-9/11 scenario or owing to connoisseur planning, foreign exchange reserves (FER) of Pakistan touched highest levels ever in the previous government. With increased GDP and FERs the number of suicidal deaths also grew larger when poverty ridden people take their lives. This situation demonstrates that some link was broken somewhere. And that’s about social moorings and calls for a shift in paradigm.

The government must focus on delivering what people most desire. Indeed, a new understanding of good life can be built not around wealth but around well-being: having basic survival needs met, along with freedom, health, security, and satisfying social relations. Consumption would still be important, to be sure, but only to the extent that it boosts quality of life.

Pakistani society if focuses on well-being will involve more interaction with family, friends, and neighbors, a more direct experience of nature, and more attention to finding fulfillment and creative expression than in accumulating goods. It should emphasize lifestyles that avoid abusing our own health, other people, or the natural world. In short, it will yield a deeper sense of satisfaction with life than many people report experiencing today.

What provides for a satisfying life? The disconnection between money and happiness in wealthy countries is perhaps most clearly illustrated when growth in income is plotted against levels of happiness. In the United States, for example, the average person’s income more than doubled between 1957 and 2002, yet the share of people reporting themselves to be very happy over that period remained static.

Happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections. People who are socially connected tend to be healthier—often significantly so. More than a dozen long-term studies in Japan, Scandinavia, and the United States show that the chances of dying in a given year, no matter the cause, is two to five times greater for people who are isolated than for socially connected people.

International development professionals also now acknowledge that strong social ties are a major contributor to a country’s development. The World Bank, for instance, sees social connectedness as a form of capital—an asset that yields a stream of benefits useful for development.

Creating a higher quality of life requires us to help create new political, physical, and cultural infrastructures of well-being. Pakistan has no such infrastructure and is thus ranked 167 out of 180 countries in Well-being Index. Sri Lanka ranks 49 and Bangladesh 131. Interestingly, Nigeria ranks 133, a position better than Pakistan.

Year after year, the Human Development Index report shows Pakistan lagging behind the rest of the regional countries. Our investment in realizing the human potential remains the lowest in South Asia. The HDI report lists a shocking situation of the poor quality of life in Pakistan.

The standard tool used to measure societal health, GDP, is much too narrow to serve as a yardstick of well-being because it sums all economic transactions, regardless of their contribution to quality of life. It also ignores entire swaths of non-market activity that contribute to individual and society well-being.

A well-being society would offer consumers a sufficient range of genuine choices rather than a large array of virtually identical products. Businesses would be encouraged through economic incentives to deliver what consumers really seek—reliable transportation, not necessarily a car; or strong neighborhood relationships in lieu of a large house with a big yard. Choice would be redefined to mean options for increasing quality of life rather than selections among individual products or services.

If focused on well-being Pakistani society would ensure that everyone in it has access to healthy food, clean water and sanitation, education, health care, and physical security. It is virtually impossible to imagine a society of well-being that does not provide for people’s basic needs.

Making the transition to a society of well-being is a challenge to the new premier given people’s habit of placing consumption at the apex of societal values. All the same, any move in this direction starts out with two strong advantages. First, the human family today has a base of knowledge, technology that can be invested in well-being rather than in continued material accumulation for its own sake. A second advantage is simple but powerful: for many people, a life of well-being is preferred to a life of high consumption.

By nurturing relationships, facilitating healthy choices, learning to live in harmony with nature, and tending to the basic needs of all, the PPP Government will leave its indelible footprints in history if it shifts from an emphasis on consumption to an emphasis on well-being. This could be an apposite response to the growing number of suicidal deaths due to poverty, and to be his great achievement in the twenty-first century.