Monday, June 20, 2016
Does the Ladder of Life Exist?
The United Nations publishes a world happiness report based upon data from a Gallup survey, ranking countries according to their level of happiness. The Danes game out top. The Japanese were 53rd, one third of the way down the 150 or so countries, which is irregular bearing in mind their high GDP per capital with which "happiness" is shown to correlate.
It transpires however that the Gallup survey does not measure anything I recognise as happiness at all. The actual, and single, question that determines national happiness is as follows.
“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” (From the statistical appendix of the report)
(In my Japanese 「０」という一番下の段から、「１０」という一番上の段のある梯子を想像してください。一番上の段は、あなたにとって自分の一番よい人生で、一番下の段は自分の一番悪い人生を表しています。今現在、梯子の何番目の段に立っていると感じるといえるでしょうか？)
While the notion of a variety of lives, and the possibility of my being able to live any other life but the one I am living is a little fraught, it is at least imaginable. I might never have left the UK. I might have married someone else, etc.
As the famous song by Chiyoko Shimakura goes, people lead and we all could have lead a variety of lives. Life is varied. And by implication in the song, while life has its ups and downs, it is all good.
The notion on the contrary that these lives could be ranked and arranged in a vertical hierarchy with the "best life" at the top and "the worst life" at the bottom is far more difficult to grasp. It seems to me that certain negatives accompany positives (such as the envy of others with success), and positives with negatives (such as emotion, and humility with suffering).
That this imaginary vertical ranking of lives transpires to correlate - in most instances - with wealth may be because it is in fact encouraging respondents to economically appraise their own lives, ranking it in quantitative terms -- "I've done okay" "I've done well" -- in none other than in dollars and yen. In any event the suggestion that this one question plumbs the depths of national well-being or that it should be used to guide political policy seems to be to be quite absurd, especially in view of the way in which Westerners answer such questions in so unrealistically positive ways. But alas, this and similar measures are being used to inform political policy and the need for public spending. We are not high enough on the ladder. So, do we need to spend more?
The ladder of life does not exist so we should give up trying to climb it.
The above image contains a detail from a still from Chiyoko Shimakura's video for "Jinsei Iroiro" (Lit "Life Variety" or "Life has its Ups and Downs").
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.