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Happiness: Abenomics falls short

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

What makes people happy? The global trend toward quantifying happiness certainly got a big boost from Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that has championed and made a cottage industry out of the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

It’s a cool idea, one that challenges the growth and material obsessions embodied in Gross National Product (GNP) by asserting that what it all should be about is quality of life, spiritual values and a holistic assessment of social progress.

The key pillars are sustainable development, environmental conservation, preservation of cultural values and good governance.

However, many Bhutanese express skepticism about GNH and question how Bhutan’s ostensible emphasis on well-being can be reconciled with widespread poverty. True, to walk through traditional villages and up to monasteries and yak herding pastures is an ethereal experience, and one encounters beaming smiles and warm hospitality all over.

Nonetheless, Bhutan as a GNH superpower remains an aspiration.

Everyone defines happiness differently. Watching “The Tsunami and The Cherry Blossom,” a poignant Oscar-nominated documentary by English director Lucy Walker about the devastating toll March 11, 2011′s Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami had on people, one older woman said that her happiest moment was having her wedding photo taken beneath cherry blossoms. Another survivor found spiritual strength from the blossoms, finding a sort of happiness in their fleeting appearance and the awareness of transience (mono no aware in Japanese) they convey.

It reminded me of a walk many years ago with the recently departed Donald Richie. As we strolled through Rikugien, a jewel of a park in the Komagome district of Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, cherry blossoms were falling in gusty winds, creating along the pathways a magnificently luminous, dancing carpet he called “spring snow.” We ascended a small knoll and sat looking down on the newly adorned gardens, feeling happy in that oasis of breathtaking beauty.

The Cabinet Office reported in 2012 that 64 percent of Japanese value emotional contentment over material fulfillment. There was no generational difference in that preference for a happy heart over material affluence. Just over half of respondents reported finding fulfillment by spending time with family — raising uncomfortable questions about the other half. As for top priorities, “enjoying more leisure time” topped the list.

So what makes Japanese people unhappy? Daily anxieties afflict 69 percent of the sample, the most pressing of which is preparing for retirement life. This has been the leading cause of anxiety for the past decade. So Japanese might not be obsessed with pursuing wealth, but they are very concerned about the grim prospect of retirement on a tight budget.

The German Institute of Japanese Studies in Tokyo has taken a closer look at happiness through the lens of economics, known as the dismal science for good reason.

Quantifying the ineffable may well be a fool’s errand, but the numbers do tell a story. The German study published in February 2013 draws on the Japanese government’s 2011 “National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences,” with the dubious aim to, “contribute to ongoing debates about inconclusive findings.”

Apparently, having more money, a job and cohabiting with a spouse (men more than women) are key determinants of happiness — while loneliness is a recipe for unhappiness.

Thus, what simple common sense would suggest was affirmed by the 3,578 survey respondents.

Interestingly, the German study doesn’t find any statistically significant drop in happiness after the March 11 disasters — a red flag if ever there was one. The survey was conducted in March 2011 and for obvious reasons did not cover residents of Tohoku, who would have been most likely to express unhappiness since they lost much of what was important in their lives — relatives, friends, community, home, pets and source of income.

So perhaps it is more accurate to say that, outside of Tohoku in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami — and before the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) acknowledged there had been three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — the events of March 11 did not impact subjective perceptions of well-being among Japanese not directly affected by the disasters.

Even though the authors maintain their paper is “the first to comprehensively analyze the effects of March 11 on Japan,” it is at best a preliminary and incomplete assessment. Indeed, drawing on different data, Florian Kohlbacher, one of the authors of the German study, published findings elsewhere showing that the events of March 11 had a significantly negative impact on life satisfaction.

One key area that was not captured by the 2011 data was the impact of volunteering on the nearly 1 million Japanese who went to devastated areas in the aftermath. My subjective impression is that many volunteers did feel good about what they were doing, even if they may have felt frustrated or wished they could do more. Helping others in need is a legitimate source of satisfaction and even those who did not volunteer, but gave donations, probably feel good that they did so.

The German study concludes that the happiness data suggests Japan is very similar to other countries. The authors observe that “money seems to buy happiness in Japan” — adding “further evidence to the universality of this finding.”

But family life may not be what it’s cracked up to be.

“In contrast to the effects of loneliness and unemployment, the effects of children are rather ambiguous,” the study notes. Apparently kids are only a source of happiness when under the age of 6, suggesting diminishing returns thereafter.

Overall, Japan has a relatively large gender-happiness gap compared with other countries, as women are happier than men and also cope better with aging and living apart from their spouse. And for readers interested in what women want, the survey shows they prefer city life. But can we trust a survey on happiness that did not collect data on health or sexual satisfaction?

For all those analysts hoping that Abenomics will awaken the animal spirits of capitalism, the German study reports that entrepreneurship is negatively correlated with happiness in Japan. Furthermore, a recent poll by national broadcaster NHK suggests a mere 11 percent of Japanese feel they have benefitted from Abenomics, but that figure seems high. After all, less than 15 percent of households own stocks and they don’t have retirements accounts linked to stock market performance like in the U.S.

Anecdotally, too, I recently overheard returning travellers grumbling about how the cheaper yen is also boosting the ouch factor of overseas holidays. Over the past six weeks, I asked more than 100 Japanese from various regions and backgrounds about Abenomics — and everyone responded with a rueful “you got to be kidding me” smile, saying it had no connection with their lives. And nobody seems to have high hopes for Abe’s growth strategy as this third arrow has morphed into a toothpick.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.