In recent days there has been talk in Finland about whether or not the unemployed should be forced to take a 1.5 hour commute if that’s what it takes to get a job. I find this to be a fantastic example of short-sightedness. It’s hard to believe that those kinds of jobs would pay that well, which means that if this policy is adopted the resulting increase in GDP will be minuscule at best.
The article above highlights how much it would cost for a person to adopt that kind of commute; between 138-673 € a month in public transportation, depending on where you live. Assuming, of course, that public transportation is a viable option, which quite often might not be the case in such a vast and sparsely populated country. In the worst case you might end up with less money by having to carry the financial burdens of the long commute, than by staying at home and living on welfare.
And what about the secondary effects of long commutes? For example, there is ample evidence of the negative impact of a long commute when it comes to overall life satisfaction and well-being. We are not talking simply about the potential detrimental health effects of sitting in a car or train for 2-3 hours a day, but also the impact it has on psychological well-being. Assuming an 8-hour workday, 8 hours to get adequate sleep, and 3 hours a day spent commuting, it leaves 5 hours of time for oneself. 1-2 hours are easily spent in the morning routines and another hour for nighttime routines. That leaves 2-3 hours a day for hobbies, cooking, buying groceries, cleaning, spending time with the family etc., so is it a wonder that married couples in which one partner has a longer than 45 minute commute are 40% more likely to divorce?
Now imagine a family that also has small children. I seriously doubt that people who would be affected by this policy can afford a nanny, or a stay-at-home parent. So the end result would be a great number of children growing up mostly without their parents. Will a small increase in GDP be enough to cover the long term costs such a policy might create? There is enough talk about the alienation of the Finnish youth as it is, and this would simply create a new structure contributing to the problem.
So what has positive psychology to do with any of this?
In English the Scandinavian countries are called welfare states, but in the Finnish language we use the word hyvinvointi, which actually does not translate as welfare, but as well-being. The difference is profound. The idea of a welfare state is to provide basic necessities and opportunities for everyone, but a well-being state would ideally go deeper than that. Its guiding principle would be to increase the well-being of all the citizens of the nation.
Yet it seems to me that the way public policy is made in Finland is missing this point. The above example of long commutes is just one of many. It baffles me that despite there being extensive amounts of high-quality scientific research on human happiness and flourishing, it seems to be completely ignored by those responsible for creating policy.
Around 300 BC the Greek philosopher Epicurus proposed three items that form the basic conditions for a happy life: friendship, freedom, and thought. His argument was that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, even though we are financially poor, we will never be truly unhappy. (1)
The importance of social relationships shows time and again in modern scientific studies. It has become a cliche that money does not buy happiness, and it seems that even in the case of extremely poor individuals having good relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners predicts greater life satisfaction. The capacity of money to bring happiness is present already in small salaries, and it will not rise with the largest. Having more money does not, of course, in itself make us less happy or satisfied with our lives, but neither does it increase our potential to a happier life. (1, 2)
Other factors that have been found important for overall life satisfaction and well-being are also not far off from Epicurean thinking. For example; working for one’s goals, having frequent positive experiences, experiencing mental pleasures, and being involved in “flow” activities. (3)
We have the knowledge to create better and more meaningful lives in large scale. We know what the building blocks are. It is simply a matter of asking “what kind of impact will this have on happiness and well-being of people” when making policy – not just focusing on financial metrics – and letting the principle of maximising the potential for happiness for as many citizens as possible to guide the decision-making. This is not important simply because it would lead towards a better society, but it would also help capitalise on the benefits to productivity, health, and creativity that happiness can bring. For example, reducing or eliminating VAT* and making it affordable to eat out in restaurants would likely increase happiness, as eating out is a social activity and would lead not just to more people eating out, but also to more frequent social interactions with their friends. (4)
*This, by the way, is another thing I do not understand: Why is there a value-added tax on food? Does that mean there is some added value in simply being able to survive? That the basic condition of a human being is death, or non-existence?
(1) De Botton, Alain (2000). The Consolations of Philosophy. London: Penguin Books.
(2) Diener, M. L., & McGavran, M. B. D. (2008). What Makes People Happy? In: Eid, M., & Larsen R. J. (Eds.) The Science of Subjective Well-Being, Guilford Press, Ch. 17.
(3) Diener, Ed (2000). Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index. American Psychologist, Vol. 55, No. 1, 34-43.
(4) Achor, Shawn (2011). The Happiness Advantage. [Kindle Edition] Virgin Digital.