Thursday, March 27, 2008

Paying taxes as a step toward happiness

Maybe it's age, but I'm thinking a lot more about happiness.
There are all sorts of things that drive us - providing a good life for our children, security, fear of failure, a need to impress or outdo someone else, making the most of our talents or helping make a better world.
But shouldn't happiness figure in there somewhere?
The idea makes politicians, at least in North America, edgy. Maybe they just don't believe happiness is a legitimate aim.
Or perhaps they fear the search for happiness might make us selfish and self-absorbed, uncaring about our obligations to our neighbours. People might work less and grouse about taxes more.
Turns out the politicians are wrong. The drive to be happy should make us kinder and more generous, not more selfish.
That's the conclusion I'd pull from some research just published in Science. UBC psychology prof Elizabeth Dunn was part of the team. Among other studies, they interviewed a group of employees at a Boston company to assess their general happiness.
The company had a generous profit-sharing plan. At year-end, the staff got cheques for between $3,000 and $8,000.
Six to eight weeks after the bonuses were paid, the researchers interviewed the same people to see how the money had affected their state of mind.
Those who bought gifts for others or donated to charity showed greater gains in happiness that those who bought something for themselves or cleared up a credit card bill.
So money can buy happiness - but only if you spend it on someone else.
The results are consistent with other research that found happiness tends to be linked to helping others. Even small amounts committed to making things better for other people resulted in greater happiness.
The findings fit with other studies on income and happiness. One of the most cited - though that's not necessarily an indication of reliability - surveyed people around in 65 countries between 1990 and 2000.
It found that up to about $13,000 per person per year, increasing income meant increasing happiness. After that, higher income produced much smaller gains in happiness.
It makes sense to me. I've been paid quite a lot of money, and been unhappy. I've had income dramatically lower, and been pleased with life.
There is, for most of us, a comfort zone. If paying an unexpected car repair bill or a child's school costs is a big problem, then happiness is reduced. But broadly, income and happiness have much less to do with each other than people expect.
Which leads, in a winding way, to politics. Governments have increasingly a ccepted the idea that taxes are inherently bad. Tax increases, the construct goes, should make people unhappy; tax cuts should make them happier.
The assumption has already been proved dubious. One survey found 60 per cent of British Columbians would welcome higher property taxes in return for improved services. Another indicated a majority Albertans didn't want the $400 rebate the Klein government sent out in 2006; they thought the money should have been spent on health care and education.
The happiness research reinforces the point. Taxes are, on the most basic level, a form of using our money to help others. Practically, we gain - our parents don't wait as long for needed medical care, our child gets a better education and the walk to work isn't marked by so many homeless people sleeping in doorways.
But the research suggests that we'll actually be happier as a result of paying taxes to make life better for others.
That's an important distinction. Happiness only increases if the money is actually improving life for others. If it's being wasted or spent on dubious priorities, then we do get surly.
Still, there's an important lesson there for political parties. If the public thinks they're competent, then paying taxes might actually make people happier.
Footnote: Canadian governments don't worry much about happiness. The B.C. government has a couple of hundred performance measurements, but not one that deals with how happy we are. But in Bhutan, the Peace and Prosperity Party has just swept into power with a platform that includes measuring "Gross National Happiness." British Conservative leader David Cameron has backed similar proposals.