Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Great Folly of Quantifying Happiness
ONO Goro  / Professor Emeritus, Saitama University

July 5, 2010
A decade into the 21st century and developed countries are still constricted by a sense of stagnation. Today there is a growing movement among them to adopt "happiness" as an alternative to "economics," an indicator that has reached a dead end.

It goes without saying that the ultimate purpose of life lies in attaining happiness. However, once we start treating happiness as an indicator equivalent to economic values, it is transformed into something totally alien from the ultimate happiness we seek. After all, happiness and satisfaction are essentially qualitative, and do not adapt well to quantification. And precisely for that reason, economists have recognized that "utility could not be measured", and have kept these values apart from monetary values that are quantifiable.

There was a time when the Japanese government sought to turn the level of "comfortable living" in each prefecture into an indicator by compiling the rate of achievement for a broad range of criteria. Surprisingly, the results showed that prefectures that were farthest from the metropolitan area scored the highest in living comforts, while prefectures within the metropolitan area scored the lowest. In a country like Japan, where freedom of movement is ensured, this should have led to a move out of "uncomfortable" prefectures into "comfortable" prefectures. But in reality, the former regions have become over-populated and the latter regions under-populated, reflecting the people's preference for the convenience of daily life. The reason for this disparity between indicator and actual population movement lies in the fact that the attainment of this type of desire is only a relative matter, as opposed to being an absolute must.

Let's look at this in light of the "Happiness Formula" derived from Buddhist philosophy: "Happiness=Fulfillment of Desire=Desire Fulfilled÷Expected Total of Desires." According to this formula, you don't necessarily need to expand the numerator "Desire Fulfilled" to attain happiness. You can just as well take the ascetic path and reduce the denominator "Expected Total of Desires." Conversely, you will never be able to attain happiness if you continue to create new desires the way modern capitalism does, for example.

To begin with, Total Welfare consists of a mixture of elements that are easily quantified, such as economics, and elements that are impossible to quantify, such as the warmth provided by a family. Take a society suffering from severe poverty, where hunger is the norm and the level of hygiene is low, and where people have no access to education or information that constitute the minimal requirements for survival. In such a society, an expansion in economic welfare has the effect of improving non-economic welfare as well, so the two are in correlation. However, once the economic aspects of a society develop to a certain point, further expansion in economic welfare will result in a deterioration in non-economic welfare, such as pollution, overcrowding and alienation, and the two lapse into an inverse correlation. Therefore, "Happiness=Total Welfare" reaches its peak when the sum of economic welfare and non-economic welfare is at a maximum. For developed countries that have passed this peak, it is obvious that a continuous pursuit of the growth path would actually reduce the Total Welfare.

Nevertheless, the world as a whole remains gripped by the trend of pursuing economic welfare. Even developed countries that have begun to question economic welfare are seeking to quantify happiness. This is because globalization has given rise to the need for countries and ethnic groups with diverse value systems to coexist along a single axis. For people with conflicting values to coexist within a single sphere, we must develop something of a common set of values. This is how easily quantifiable values that can be misconstrued as objective, and economic values in particular, were given greater recognition than their actual worth. The prime example is America, a "melting pot of races" where diverse value systems exist within the country. In America, economic values have long been emphasized as the common value to maintain its unity as a nation. It is only natural that economic values, or values that are easily quantifiable, have gained popularity in today's world, where America holds hegemonic leadership.

In Japan's general elections held last summer, victory went to the Democratic Party, which had made a point of not featuring economic growth policies in its manifesto. The electoral outcome was due to the fact that the majority of voters had hung a question mark over Japan's past policy of imitating western values. However, in the course of the budget-making process that immediately followed the elections, the Democratic Party became captivated by the magic of economic values and reverted to a policy that emphasizes the economy, against the expectations of the Japanese people. This turnaround was perhaps one of the factors that led to a dramatic decline in the Party's popularity ratings and the subsequent collapse of the Hatoyama government. Having said so, it is nevertheless difficult to imagine the Democratic Party being brought down in the upcoming Upper House elections. After all, the Liberal Democratic Party and other major opposition parties are also pursuing policies that emphasize the economy after the American model.

In the course of these events, Japan has unfortunately lost an opportunity to fulfill its mission in world history, and the world has likewise closed its doors to a path that could have led to an escape from this state of confusion. Let me explain. Unlike the traditional western value system of gold worship, Japan has traditionally considered attachment to money as ignoble. Nevertheless, Japan managed to transform itself into a modern capitalist economic power through modernization that began in the Meiji period (since the restoration of Imperial rule in 1867) and Americanization that took place in the post-World War II period. And precisely for this reason, the course of Japan's second change in direction could have been an epochal experiment for mankind as a whole, confronted with the need for a radical change in values.

To summarize: while individuals are free to entertain the illusion of "money buys happiness" based on self-responsibility, national governments should not lead their people into holding such a false illusion by way of "quantifying happiness." It is a genuine act of folly that will only bring about results that are diametrically opposed to the happiness sought by their people.

The writer is Professor Emeritus at Saitama University.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

小野五郎 / 埼玉大学名誉教授

2010年 7月 5日









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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Great Folly of Quantifying Happiness