What does happiness have to do with offering a basic income? People are happier when they have security and autonomy, something a universal basic income could provide…

Today is International Happiness Day. The idea of measuring happiness has increased in popularity with governments in recent years. Happiness has a strong correlation with health and well-being. A healthy person is assumed to be more productive than an unhealthy person. And productivity neatly ties happiness to the more traditional economic measure of interest for governments: gross domestic product (GDP).

It helps to consider what happiness is. In his 2005 book on Happiness, Daniel Nettle defined three levels:

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Momentary feelings Judgements about feelings Quality of life
e.g. joy, pleasure. Transient, emotional responses that have a particular phenomenology e.g. well-being, life satisfaction. Reflective, typically involves comparisons with alternative (often recent) outcomes e.g. flourishing, reaching potential, ‘having a good life’. Moral, often requires conforming to cultural norms and values
known as hedonics* or subjective well-being (SWB) known as eudaimonics

There is no clean tidy separation between levels. The first two are more immediate and personal. Level 2 overlaps with level 3 in that it involves cognitive processing of the emotional reaction experienced. And once judgement starts to come into play, things get messy:

If the judge is the subject him/herself, the concept is properly psychological. If the judge is [external] and imposing some societal standard of what one should do with one’s life, then the concept has become a moralising and political one.

In short, level 1 is the most straightforward to measure because you can monitor for physiological reactions, but also the least helpful because the reaction is only momentary and, without interpretation, doesn’t tell you much. Level 3 is the hardest to measure because it is no longer clear who the judge of a person’s happiness should be. Somebody might consider themselves happy when committing acts of torture. A civilised society might feel differently.

When it comes to national attempts to measure happiness, most settle on subjective well-being through self-reporting surveys, i.e. level 2. The OECD published guidelines in 2013 to try and come up with a global measure.

There have been consistent findings across research into what makes people happy. Self-reported happiness is strongly correlated with health. People who consider themselves to be healthy consistently score higher on their feelings of being happy and vice versa. Another strong correlation is with social class. People in higher social classes consistently score higher for happiness than people in lower social classes. The immediate assumption is that income is the cause – higher social classes tend to be richer. However, studies find it is about much more than just money: (emphasis mine)

The social class scale is a measure of the level of education, likelihood of being able to choose one’s work, status relationships in the work place, and participation in non-work leisure activities.

Increases in income and material goods create a momentary boost in happiness but they are quickly adapted to. Particularly in societies where continuous consumption is encouraged for economic growth. The book states that, over the last fifty years, peoples incomes in developed countries have risen several-fold whilst the increase in happiness has been zero. The possible reasons considered include that, whilst everyone’s income has increased significantly, those increases have not translated into increases in security, autonomy or meaningful goals. To quote from the book again:

Although a janitor today is richer in real terms than a doctor of thirty years ago, he is still a janitor, and still has as little choice about where, when and what he does as he ever did.

A study of people in the British civil service showed that physical health and life expectancy correlate with job grades. As well as higher status and income, the higher grades have much more control over what they do in their jobs. People in roles with little or no autonomy are more likely to be unhappy and suffer poor health regardless of their income. Nobody enjoys being told what to do.

In addition, whilst incomes have been rising in developed countries, so have the costs of living, and the higher increases have occurred in the areas most associated with creating the freedom and opportunity to choose work:

WEF tweet

Source: Twitter (click image to view original tweet)

And this where the universal basic income could help. Since the global recession, developed countries have seen a large rise in self-employment and zero-hour contracts. Not for entrepreneurial endeavours, but to provide low-grade services that aren’t yet robot-ready. Such work has little or no autonomy and comes with high-levels of job insecurity and minimal career prospects. It is the perfect recipe for unhappiness, poor health and low productivity. If nations are serious about wanting to improve happiness, health and productivity, giving people the choice to do more meaningful work would be a good place to start.

The idea of a basic income is not new. Those of inherited wealth are more than familiar with the privatised version. Providing universal access would mean that everyone would have choices about the work they do and the opportunity to take risks with some level of financial safety net provided. Idealistic? Perhaps. But I’d prefer a world where civilisation continues to progress forward. The great advances being made to improve global health and well-being are wonderful. The latest annual letter posted by the Gates foundation gives an idea of just how much has been achieved in recent years. But telling everyone who lives in a developed country that they should consider themselves lucky to be where they are because life is better than it used to be falls into the realm of level 3 happiness: judging others, often from a position of considerable more comfort and autonomy than those being judged.

At the start of the year, an interview between economist Jim O’Neill and Dr Jim Long Kim, president of the World Bank was published on BBC Radio 4. It included the following observation:

It used to be, maybe 40 or even just 30 years ago, when half the world lived in extreme poverty. Today it is less than 10 percent. So we’ve made huge advances. But what’s happened is that all 7 billion people in the world now have ambitions to lead middle class lives. And that is never going to change. The reality of the world is that everyone now knows how everyone else lives…

For any nation serious about happiness, the best route is to help realise those aspirations for everyone to lead a middle class life. In high-income countries, the universal basic income is one possible solution.

Note: I’ve written about this subject before and have tried to avoid repeating the same arguments made previously. If this is your first visit, please check out the following related posts:


Featured image: ‘And the living was easy’, kindly shared on Flickr under Creative Commons by Thomas Hawk 

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  1. […] is a short follow-on to the previous post ‘Health, Happiness and a Basic Income‘ and is inspired by a comment posted on Twitter: (hat tip to […]

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