Lunch with economist Med Jones: How to be happy
The solution to one of life’s most-pondered questions, as he unwraps it, is immune to being summed up in a pithy, abstract Dalai Lama-style aphorism
If there’s one thing that Med Jones, one of the few economists to predict the Great Recession of 2008, wants the world to know, it’s how to be happy.
The solution to one of life’s most-pondered questions, as he unwraps it, is almost immune to being summed up by an abstract Dalai Lama-style aphorism.
Personal happiness, says the 40-something economist - who was in Dubai to speak on the subject at the Positive Energy Forum, a summit for the emirate’s government employees held by the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs - comes down to a rather cryptic formula of internal and external factors. “Happiness is a function of two variables,” he says.
“There are things that you control. There are things that you cannot control,” says Jones, after being pushed for a simpler answer. “The things that are external to you, the government, and where you are born, you cannot control that. What you can control is your own perspective.”
Personal faith also plays a key role in being happy. “This is one insight that most scientists will hate me for,” says Jones. He believes that the German theorist Karl Marx’s famous proclamation – that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ - should be seen in a “positive way.”
“Just believing in a higher power will make you more resilient and happier,” he says. “[Belief] in God reduces is when you become rich and you become successful and you become powerful. The correlation goes down.”
After a meeting in the lobby, a day before the summit, Jones and this reporter head to Jamie’s Italian restaurant, a high-street chain set up by UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Sitting down, Jones is happy to talk for a full 25 minutes before questions even begin.
“When I was young, a person asked me, if you are so smart, why are you not rich? When I became rich, I asked myself, if I’m so smart, why am I not happy?” he says over a pineapple juice, the only thing he can be persuaded to order.
Jones’s expertise comes from over a decade of study into happiness – and he says he is compiling concrete steps for governments around the world to put his findings into action.
His source of inspiration for the subject comes as a surprise. Back in 1972, the king of Bhutan, a tiny hermit nation tucked away in the Himalayas, floated the idea of national happiness as a serious, formal indicator styled on conventional economics.
“Gross National Happiness [GNH] is more important than Gross National Product,” Bhutan’s silk robe-wearing monarch, sometimes known as the dragon king, proclaimed at the time.
“Unfortunately,” Jones says, “30 years forward, he didn’t do anything about it.”
Intrigued, Jones set out to explore a subject that many purveyors of ‘the dismal science’ usually deem untouchable. At is turns out, happiness, much like opinions on movies, food, and the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, is very subjective.
“Unless you provide them [economists] with the framework to manage and track the well-being and happiness of their people they’re not going to do anything about it,” he says.
The work and ideas of Jones and the team of over 50 people he leads at the Las Vegas-based International Institute of Management in Las Vegas soon gained momentum.
In 2009, the-then French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, announced a plan to measure happiness instead of gross domestic product, a more traditional state benchmark. The UK followed several years later, with the creation of a ‘National Well-being’ index in 2012.
But according to Jones, the measures haven’t worked. “Since 2009 until now, none of them [France and the UK] has gotten happier,” he says.
Due to its subjective nature and scope, a more time is needed to be able to present concrete, factual conclusions on global happiness, Jones says.
A plethora of happiness indexes now exist: the Happy Planet Index, started in 2006 by the British-based New Economics Foundation; the UN’s World Happiness Report, which started in 2012; and the US-based Social Progress Index, which began in 2013. Washington-based polling firm Gallup started a well-being index in 2009, which now measures what it calls ‘global emotions’ in 140 countries.
The indexes disagree on what makes a happy nation: Costa Rica is at the top of the Happy Planet Index, while Denmark, Norway and Paraguay lead the other three lists. The world’s unhappiest country, according to the indexes, is either Chad, Burundi, Zimbabwe or Syria.
However, Jones has scathing words towards rival institutions that claim to rank happiness around the world, describing them as “copycats.”
“I do not suggest that these respected institutions or economists are lying, I’m saying that their bias is causing them to mislead themselves and the public,” he says.
“The studies that are coming right now, they are great PR, but they are not great science…. you cannot have a science after three or four years” he adds.
“You need 25 years, one generation at least of a reliable body of knowledge for you to make conclusions.”
His institute, meanwhile, has put together its own global index – although he says it still has “five or six” years to go before an accurate, decisive methodology and ranking can be published.
The UAE is currently ranked as 28th on the UN’s report, flanked by the Czech Republic and Uruguay. Unsurprisingly, Jones disagrees with the ranking.
“They’re already ranked higher on our list. We didn’t share that with the UAE government, but they already rank higher [than Israel],” he says. In 11th place, Israel is the happiest Middle Eastern country on the UN’s list, nestled between Sweden and Austria.
Although hesitant to provide details, Jones said that he ranks the UAE as among the top ten happiest countries in the world.
“It has to do with the three things: safety of the people, their health, their economic opportunities, and their relationships. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
National well-being is something that UAE authorities take seriously. In February, the country rolled out a formal ministry of happiness. During her swearing-in ceremony, the new happiness minister, Ohood al-Roumi, appeared to embody her new role by sporting a gold necklace spelling out the word ‘Happy.’
Happy or not?
As a field of study, happiness seems paradoxical – a fact that decades of tabloid reports on the chaos and disorder from Hollywood’s rich and famous seem to attest.
“They have what appears to be perfect socio-economic conditions, they have all the money, all the fame, all the lovers, yet they struggle emotionally, they can’t keep a healthy relationship, they need to be in psychotherapy for a long time, they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol,” says Jones.
His reason for this is complex. The internal variables of many celebrities – their perspectives, learning and actions in response do not keep up with the massive changes going with their lives – cannot match the almost-ethereal external variables brought on by fame and fortune.
Despite his cheery, energetic manner – and a level of insight into happiness that might rival that of an ancient sage – Jones puts his own level of happiness lower than one might expect.
“Average. Average,” he says. “But I have increased my happiness significantly over the past few years, more than I have been in the past 40 years or so.”