[GLOBAL EYE]The relativity of happiness

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[GLOBAL EYE]The relativity of happiness

I visited Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, for the first time in July 1996. At that time, I was impressed by the waves of bicycles in the city’s downtown. When I visited again last month, 10 years later, bicycles had been replaced by motorcycles. It was quite impressive to watch men and women of all ages ride motorcycles through the streets, honking their horns. When I told the Vietnamese of my impression, they laughed loudly, saying, “Next time you come, motorcycles will have been replaced by automobiles.”
The streets in Hanoi were vibrant and its citizens displayed confidence with their expressions. From our standards, Vietnam is still a poor country. In terms of gross domestic product, which we often use as the yardstick of wealth, Vietnam’s GDP of $227.2 billion in 2004 based on its purchasing power is less than a quarter of that of South Korea. Moreover, when this figure is divided by its population of 83 million people, the per capita gross domestic product is a mere $2,700. Nevertheless, I felt their attitude toward the world was more relaxed and positive than ours. Was I mistaken to feel that way?
Whenever I live or travel abroad, there is something I feel anew: That material possessions are not in proportion to happiness. When it comes to gross domestic product, Americans should be tens of times happier than the Vietnamese but this is not so, at least in my experience. On the contrary, Americans seem to lead harder lives and live in less comfort. Surveys also show that the happiness index of Bangladeshis is higher than that of people in advanced nations like the United States and European countries. Economic abundance is only one component of happiness.
A popular book published recently in the United States is “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” written by Benjamin Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard University. In this book, he argues that, “Economic growth is prerequisite for the expansion of opportunities for individuals and social development.” He also says, “Economic growth improves people’s living standards and enhances people’s sense of happiness by not only enabling liberal social policy but also helping them have a positive attitude toward the future.” In other words, people’s feeling of happiness is not determined by their current income level but by economic growth and the subsequent increase in their expected income.
Vietnam recorded an economic growth rate of 7.7 percent last year. Along with Kazakhstan, China and India, Vietnam belongs to a group of countries whose economic growth rates are highest. A higher economic growth rate means more opportunities for individuals. Vietnamese people’s happiness seems to largely derive from these factors. Early last month in France, there were riots by the younger generation of Muslim immigrants to protest social discrimination. If the French economy had grown rapidly, young Muslims too would have had opportunities and there would have been no need for discrimination against them.
But a high growth rate like that in Vietnam cannot be expected of a country like France that has already entered a stage of maturity. If this is the case, where should people in advanced countries look for happiness? I think they should find it in establishing fair game rules by removing social discrimination and expanding transparency.
If everyone in a society could accept that he or she did not lose in competition because of a difference in skin color, religion, race, gender, region or school, wouldn’t the sense of happiness in that society increase even if its economic growth were slow?
Where should the Republic of Korea look for the bluebird of happiness? This is what I wonder, looking back on this year which saw many conflicts and confrontations.

* The writer is the international affairs editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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