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Sun Oct 26 10:33:41 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Can you buy happiness?

Christopher Howse | 08 February, 2013 00:07
A child jumps on waste products used to make poultry feed as she plays in a tannery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. There are many kinds of wealth that money alone cannot afford Picture: ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS

In this life one thing counts: in the bank large amounts. That gnomic insight by Fagin (as played by Ron Moody) in Oliver! underlies the bold argument in a column in the business pages of The Telegraph that the richer you are, the happier.

Allister Heath, the editor of a digital daily London newspaper , wrote that there is no doubt "top economists" have proved this from lots of data. This irresistible information appears on the World Database of Happiness.

On a scale of 10, the people of Zimbabwe put their happiness in 2008 at 2.83. In the same year, those smug burghers in Switzerland averaged 7.93.

Actually, to be accurate, the question asked of the realistically miserable people of Zimbabwe and the euthymic Helvetians was not: "How happy are you?"

It was: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?"

However, this week another scientific study by the University of Buffalo in New York found that people who helped others were healthier and lived longer .

It is better to give than to receive, then. But what happens if you have nothing to give? Poverty as privation is a real evil.

One of those tremendous sentimental Victorian problem pictures, The Doctor by Luke Fildes, shows a labourer's wee bairn lying wrapped up across two chairs while its sorrowful mother sits with her face in her arm, uncomforted by her husband's hand on her shoulder. The doctor looks grave as an uncertain dawn lights the window of the poor cottage.

Tell the story yourself. The parents are doomed to tragedy by their poverty, which has left their child at death's door. Or the child is saved by the generosity of the doctor, treating it without charge. Take your pick. The poverty didn't help, even if riches could not buy an hour's extra life for a stricken loved one.

So, would we all be happy if we had a fair share of the cake?

Aristotle asked this question 23 centuries ago. Sharing property might remove the temptation for someone to be a robber because he is hungry or cold, he conceded, but necessity is not the cause of the worst crimes.

"Men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm," he said.

It's the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself.

When I say "keeps them happy" I mean "feeds their addiction". It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a small animal on the bare surface of the earth lost in space.

The poor, by contrast, live in the shelter of one another, as the Irish proverb has it. They are none the less human for being poor. Which traveller was it whose proffered money was turned down by the man who had shown him the way through the tangled streets of Toledo with the words: "No, it is I who have given you something that a poor man can."

The trouble comes when a wave of prosperity washes over a culture and then recedes. I've certainly seen that in Spain over a generation. Ordinary people lived in two-room houses, and lived friendships and conversations.

Then economic growth struck. Their squalid houses were demolished, and they moved into flats near the station with mod cons. The economic tide went out, leaving them exposed, unemployed, perhaps with grown-up children living at home. They have meanwhile lost the art and resources to live happily poor. Their only salvation now is Allister Heath's economic growth, and there's no sign of that.

I am as frightened as most of a single-bar-fire old age, ending in hospital. Not long to go.

Yet we are creatures programmed for optimism, which is a trust in things somehow working out. That certainly isn't a trust in money. - ©The Daily Telegraph

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