It’s true, happiness doesn’t cost much

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It’s true, happiness doesn’t cost much

Sunday, 11 February 2024 | Archana Jyoti

It’s true, happiness doesn’t cost much

Archana Jyoti delves into a captivating study revealing that despite minimal wealth, many Indigenous and local communities worldwide leading a remarkably satisfying lives, challenging the conventional link between happiness and material riches

Against the backdrop of towering forests, rolling hills, and azure skies, many Indigenous people and local communities around the world are leading very satisfying lives despite having very little money, thus painting a portrait of happiness that transcends the boundaries of material wealth.This is the conclusion of a study by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) in collaboration with McGill University in Canada,  which shows that many societies with very low monetary income have remarkably high levels of life satisfaction, comparable to those in wealthy countries. It suggests that there may be good reasons to question whether this link is universal. While most global polls, such as the World Happiness Report, gather thousands of responses from the citizens of industrialized societies, they tend to overlook people in small-scale societies on the fringes, where the exchange of money plays a minimal role in everyday life and livelihoods depend directly on nature. To unravel the mystery, the curous researchers embarked on a survey of around 3000 people from Indigenous and local communities in 19 globally distributed sites. Only 64 per cent of surveyed households had any cash income. The average life satisfaction score across the studied small-scale societies was 6.8 on a scale of 0-10. Although not all societies reported being highly satisfied - averages were as low as 5.1 - four of the sites reported average scores higher than 8, typical of wealthy Scandinavian countries in other polls, "and this is so, despite many of these societies having suffered histories of marginalization and opperession

 The results showed that "surprisingly, many populations with very low monetary incomes report very high average levels of life satisfaction, with scores similar to those in wealthy countries, said Eric Galbraith, a researcher at ICTA-UAB and McGill University and lead author of the study. Of course, the results are consistent with the notion that human societies can support very satisfactory lives for their members without necessarily requiring high degrees of material wealth, as measured in monetary terms. 

"The strong correlation frequently observed between income and life satisfaction is not universal and proves that wealth - as generated by industrialized economies - is not fundamentally required for humans to lead happy lives," added Victoria Reyes-Garcia, ICREA researcher at ICTA-UAB and senior author of the study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The findings are good news for sustainability and human happiness, as they provide strong evidence that resource-intensive economic growth is not required to achieve high levels of subjective well-being. However, the researchers were perplexed that, although they now know that people in many Indigenous and local communities report high levels of life satisfaction, they did not know why. Prior work would suggest that family and social support and relationships, spirituality, and connections to nature are among the important factors on which this happiness is based, "but the important factors may differ significantly between societies or, conversely, that a small subset of factors dominates everywhere.

"I would hope that, by learning more about what makes life satisfying in these diverse communities, it might help many others to lead more satisfying lives while addressing the sustainability crisis," Galbraith added. Notably, many countries are trying experimenting with this happiness quotient. For instance, Bhutan has a ministry that developed the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which assesses citizen well-being through regular surveys. The results have become a key tool for planning and evaluating public policies, says researcher Luis Rodríguez Calles. Canada, Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United Nations too following the      suit, as they acknowledge the importance of happiness in public policy development and have started systematically assessing the well-being of their own citizens.

And, measnwhile, in this narrative, we are reminded that true happiness lies not in the pursuit of wealth, but in the embrace of community, the appreciation of nature, and the celebration of life's simple joys.

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