Among those still reeling from the impact of last winter’s fuel bills, the suggestion that money doesn’t buy happiness will probably sound not only wrong-headed but insulting. Money may not guarantee happiness but it certainly staves off misery, they might answer.
Nevertheless, a growing body of opinion, not composed just of right-wing pundits defending the rich, maintains that it is time we stopped measuring well-being in terms of pounds, dollars and euros and thought outside the box.
According to a recent UN symposium held in Malaysia, we need to add a range of other factors to the mix, from the likelihood of hearing birdsong to access to nature and the number of hours we get to sleep each night.
The co-host of the UN symposium in Kuala Lumpur, Anantha Duraiappah, says policymakers tend to overemphasise the importance of GDP as the sole measure of wealth, which leads them to ignore equally important indices of people’s “non-material wealth”. Presumably, that is where birds singing comes in.
“As countries develop, there are diminishing returns to quality of life from economic output – indeed, the relationship becomes increasingly contentious and questionable,” he says.
Some, particularly on the left, will bridle at the notion that money is just one of many ingredients to well-being – and they are right to be suspicious. Taken to an extreme, arguments about “non-material” wealth could be used as an alibi for the growing divide between rich and poor and to suggest that poverty not only doesn’t matter but doesn’t even exist.
If poor people sleep a lot, apparently they are not so poor, or are poor only in economic terms. One could end up arguing that cities don’t need more schools, hospitals and homes so much as more bird boxes.
However, that would be to caricature the thrust of the symposium, which only made the point that we should look beyond GDP as the sole indicator of wealth, not that we should discard it as a measurement altogether.
That is good advice. It is obvious that when the weather is sunny, as it has been in Britain lately, almost everyone feels in a better mood – enriched. A range of studies has also shown that the environment has a direct impact on people’s mental health and mood. In that sense, the idea that even birds have a role to play in affecting our well-being is not completely cuckoo.