Happiness & Democracy

from Ratifiers for Democracy

Money talks but democracy makes you smile.

The ultimate objective of the form and actions of government should be to improve our quality of life, sense of well being, or in a word - happiness. But, what makes this happiness and what actions should governments take (or avoid) to enhance our "pursuit of happiness"?

Professor Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, who are economists at the University of Zurich, have recently (April 1999) completed a study* of more than 6000 residents from all over Switzerland, in an attempt to answer these questions. They have come to a number of unsurprising, but also very surprising conclusions.

Being sick is a real downer. Ill health has the biggest single negative impact on happiness. This is followed by unemployment. The amount of the reduction in disposable income seems to have very little effect. The raw fact of being unemployed is the big minus.

Women are happier than men, married men and women happier than singles, younger and older people are happier than those in their 30s, and the happiest professions are self-employed, housewife, and retired. The amount of money earned has no statistically significant effect on happiness except giving a very slight life to top earners (It's official; money can't buy happiness even if it does allow you to be unhappy in comfort).

After taking into account all these factors and more, there were still large differences in the happiness enjoyed in the individual cantons. What could be causing this?

Switzerland is a federal state with a weak central government and 26 cantons with most of the political power and which pass most of the laws. Each canton has its own combination and degree of both representative and direct democracy. Could that be making the difference?

The 26 cantons were graded from one to six according to the degree of democratic participation possibilities for the citizens. This was graphed against the happiness experienced in the individual cantons, and lo and behold! There it was: an almost perfect graph that for 24 cantons showed that greater democracy equals greater happiness experienced. Only two cantons didn't quite fit. The people of Ticino are happier than one would expect from their level of democracy. They do, however, live in a southern canton that is the sunniest in Switzerland. In the second oddball canton, Schaffhausen, people are less happy than one would expect from their high level of democratic participation. This, the researchers have put down to "possibly due to a negative effect of compulsory voting in this canton, which is unique in Switzerland."

A further insight can be had from the "foreigners" in this survey (in a Swiss context this would be mostly "guest workers" of assorted Mediterranean origin). They are less happy than Swiss citizens and are not allowed to vote, but if they live in a canton with greater democracy, their happiness level increases. They can't themselves participate in this greater democracy, so this increased happiness is put down to "political outcomes", i.e. better government.

*Frey and Stutzer, Happiness, Economy and Institutions ,4/99 prelim.pub.,Institute for Empirical Economic Research, University of Zurich, contact: astutzer@iew.unizh.ch
Ratifiers for Democracy is a non-politically-affiliated international organization dedicated to promoting better government through greater citizen participation.
Democracy is a muscle that needs to be exercised to develop,

and needs regular flexion to stay strong and healthy.

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UK Ratifiers for Democracy "A Democratic Way"

Where nothing's impossible . . . except democracy

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