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Commentary (April 5, 2006)

If 'Affluence' Fails to Please

Takamitsu SAWA (Professor, Ritsumeikan University)

One measure of "affluence," whose meaning can be ambiguous, is per capita gross domestic product. While GDP growth indicates a quantitative expansion of the economy, its size is by no means a measure of social well-being or people's happiness.

From the late 1940s to the 1960s, Japan's real per capita GDP was only one-fifth of what it is today. Japanese were poor and faced hard times, yet were mostly happy, having something to study for, work for and live for.

It may be hard to believe today, but from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, the "three status symbols" for Japanese families were a black-and-white television, a refrigerator and a washing machine. In the late 1960s, the symbols were upgraded to the widely touted "three C's" -- a color TV, a car and a "cooler" (air conditioner). When they bought those products, most Japanese felt a sense of unimaginable euphoria.

Among young Japanese today, the number of NEETs (those not in employment, education or training) and "freeters" (casual workers without regular employment) has sharply increased, indicating that many people have nothing to study or work for. I sometimes wonder whether Japanese by nature have much desire for affluence.

Some rich Americans may enjoy the lifestyle of working weekdays in New York and then flying a private jet to Colorado to spend the weekend at a mountain villa, but a similar lifestyle is unheard of in Japan. Perhaps Japanese in general have little interest in a nomadic way of life, or find it impracticable in a small nation.

In Japan, there is little correlation between income/consumption and happiness. An extravagant lifestyle alone does not give people a sense of happiness.

In my view, happiness comes from a sense of social involvement, commitment and sympathy, all deriving from interaction with other people. In other words, happiness stems from feeling a sense of presence in a society.

Happiness also comes from the process of working hard to accomplish a goal. Having a definite goal and trying to accomplish it step by step requires concentration and gives people a reason for living and a sense of happiness. During Japan's high-growth years, people were happy trying to achieve the national goal of an "affluent society."

Now, we seem to be tired of seeking "affluence" as defined by per capita GDP. In the 21st century, when we can eat all the food we want, we should seek "happiness" as a goal of life. Though there is no definite measure for happiness, this much is certain: Affluence is not a sufficient condition for happiness; it is not even a necessary condition.

Unhappiness is easier to define than is happiness. If happiness comes from social involvement, unhappiness stems from a state of exclusion. A typical example of exclusion is unemployment, or being excluded from the job market despite a willingness to work. A society with high employment is a society full of unhappy people.

Seventeen percent of the Americans, meanwhile, are not covered by medical insurance. To the extent that they are excluded from medical service, their state could be termed "unhappy." Our goal in the 21st century should be to create a society in which nobody is excluded.

(This article appeared in the April 3, 2006 issue of The Japan Times)

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