Human flourishing – what makes people happy?

Mother and children sitting in the park

A poll recently conducted for CAFOD, Tearfund and Theos looking at what makes people happy made for interesting reading.

Top of the list in the happiness stakes was spending time with friends and family (97 per cent rating). Next came an interesting job (92 per cent), then being in a relationship ( 85 per cent) and hobbies and sport (80 per cent).

Seventh in the ten criteria with 64 per cent was having a high income. This last finding was particularly relevant in the consumer driven world, which emphasises material wealth above all else. The poll accompanied the publication of a report, co-authored by the three charities, titled Wholly Living: a new perspective on international development that focuses on the idea of human flourishing. This critiques the present neo liberal economic model which advocates the pursuit of growth at any cost.

The failure of this model, according to the report, sees millions in the developing world suffer due to poverty, sickness and powerlessness, while in the developed world similar dissatisfaction comes from job insecurity, overwork, consumerism, anti-social behaviour and family dislocation. “In the UK as economic growth has risen, well being has flat-lined, social capital has declined and inequality has increased,” said Chris Bain, the director of CAFOD.

The report calls for the world to turn its back on the narrow consumer driven selfish model of development and turn to a more generous Christian inspired model of what it means to live well. “Ultimately we flourish as humans when the conditions that allow us to live in right relationship and contribute generously to our common good are met,” says the report.

The amazing thing is that none of this is particularly new. Back in 1968 during his 82 day bid to win the Democratic Presidential nomination, Robert Kennedy questioned the wisdom of evaluating everything in terms of the value of Gross Domestic Product. Socially the 1960s and 70s were far more progressive in many ways.

During the 1970s there was the talk of the 25 hour week and people retiring when they reached 50. It was felt automation of processes would result in far more free time for people to spend on leisure or educational pursuits. This was remember before anyone had even thought of the internet. It was an exciting prospect but clearly a frightening one for those with their hands on the levers of power.

Then came the rise of the neo-liberals to positions of power around the world, most notably with the election of Ronald Reagan as President in the US and Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in Britain.

From that point any dream of early retirement or more leisure time receded. Instead, the power of organised labour was weakened, restrictive employment laws implemented and the Murdoch led media became a propaganda tool of government. In short, people were forced to work longer hours for less pay, resulting in greater profits for the few and a growing inequality in society.

Little changed over the years of a Labour Government that signed up totally to the neo-liberal creed. This was particularly evidenced in Europe where the business lobby pushed the British Government to obstruct wherever possible any socially progressive legislation. This saw opposition to attempts to restrict the length of the working week, the blocking of full employment rights for agency workers and most recently opposition to the extension of maternity leave entitlements.

The CAFOD report also focuses on the need for “a new democratic global green economy with human and environmental sustainability at its heart.” The environment has to be factored into any future economic model and human flourishing. To date successive governments have treated sustainable development as a luxurious add on, easily disposed with at time of economic difficulty.

This timely report from CAFOD and its partners should form part of the debate as to how the world is ordered in the future. It is high time that there was a more even distribution of the world’s wealth. The poll proves that not everyone is obsessed with material wealth, many want community and increasingly look to faith for that nourishment.

It is important to remember that humans are spiritual beings and require nurture beyond simply working to live. The report suggests a Prime Ministerial commission to take these ideas forward, it would be a good start to a process that could help us all rediscover our own humanity.

The poll conducted by Cafod, Theos and Tearfund

Wholly Living, a new perspective on international development

Paul Donovan

Photo: Sunshine and happiness. [Photo credit: Rishi Meron]