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Is happiness more important than economic growth?

Europe is one of the happiest places on Earth. 

Half of the top 10 happiest countries in the world (and just over half of the top 20) are EU Member States, according to the latest World Happiness Report, published in 2022 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The report ranks countries according to a series of indicators, including income per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom, and perceptions of corruption. Finland comes out on top as the happiest place on Earth, with Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Austria also ranking in the top ten.

There is, however, a great deal of variety between Member States; the “happiest” countries tend to be in Northern and Western Europe, whilst Southern and Eastern European countries generally score lower. Bulgaria, for example, is the least-happy EU Member State, placing 85th out of 146 in the rankings, while Finland is the happiest, placing 1st in the world.

So, quelle surprise, the richer EU Member States also tend to be happier. 

Does that mean that, ultimately, it really is all about economic growth and money? Or is it more about how we measure “happiness”? Is it possible to decouple our notion of progress from economic growth, maybe even ‘de-growing’ our economies and prioritising wellbeing? Or is that all a bunch of hippy nonsense?

What do our readers think? 

We had a comment sent in from Christian arguing that the “belief in infinite growth makes people unhappy, especially all the genuine hard workers who work every day to create what the rich then reap….”. Is Christian right? Does the constant pursuit of growth make people unhappy?

We put this question to German liberal MEP Engin Eroglu, who sits on the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. What would he say?

💬 Dear Christian, thank you very much for your question, which perhaps already contains your answer. How do I see the matter? For me, the pursuit of growth is not a point that makes people unhappy, I don’t believe that. I also don’t believe that one should start badmouthing growth, because growth can have many different forms. Not everyone works in a company that ultimately exploits its employees. So, if we’re in the field of poetry, where employees write a book or freelance artists create works of art, or in the music industry, if you have a contract with a record company, then the record company (I don’t know much about that) says: “Here, you have half a million, deliver a great album in two years”. Then the musician has two nice years, travels around the world and writes songs about his experiences.

Certainly there are industries, I might share your opinion, where growth can make the employee unhappy, because there might not be a good distribution of wealth. But I am firmly convinced that our European system is the most beautiful in the world and that’s why it doesn’t make people unhappy. When I’m out and about in the world – I’m on the Committee on Foreign Affairs – people talk about Europe as a place of freedom and hope. I’ve never heard anyone say: “It’s stupid in Europe!”

I completely agree with you that things are getting better and better. Intermediate question: what is growth? Musicians don’t ‘grow’ by making an album, they mature in the sense of cultural growth. There is not only growth in the production of goods. So, I wouldn’t put it so bluntly and I think the truth lies in the middle and, of course, we can still do a bit better in Europe. But I’m very, very happy with the way we’re doing it and we also need growth in order to develop further. In the end growth needs entrepreneurs, like from the company BioNTech, who say: “Hey, you need to create a lot now. I need you to be productive. I will make a lot of profit but I will also pay my employees well”. At the same time he also says: “Hey, I have decided that in Africa we will release the vaccine for the cost of production”. So, there are also good growth systems and not always only bad ones.

Is happiness more important than economic growth? 

Is it possible to measure ‘wellbeing’? And is Europe really one of the happiest places on Earth?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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