The Economics of (un)Happiness?

The following piece is my latest thought piece published in Woroni, also available in print.
The Economics of (un)Happiness?

I was walking around the campus when I came across the poster presenting the premier Canberra screening of the movie “The Economics of Happiness”. Over the last few months, I have read one too many articles on how Australia is the happiest nation in the world. With the gradual increase in emphasis on happiness, I can’t help but wonder why society has become so obsessed with “the pursuit of happiness”, so much so it has to be measured quantitatively.

Since the 1970s, economists and governments around the world have been arguing that economic growth doesn’t equal happiness. Way back in 1972, the then King of Bhutan instituted a GNH (Gross National Happiness) index as the basis for the country’s future planning. The GNH was carefully selected as a measure rather than the usual GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which the Bhutanese believe reflects only one aspect of national development. Last year, the UK government launched its own “happiness index” as an alternative to relying on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a basic guide to the nation’s progress. Three months ago, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) unveiled Australia as the “happiest” nation in the world according to its Better Life Index. The Index allows citizens to compare well-being across 34 countries, based on 11 dimensions the OECD has identified as essential, in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety, work-life balance. Yet, just a few weeks ago, the Reserve Bank’s governor, Glenn Stevens, suggested that Australia’s households are unlikely to see a return of the “good old days”  of rapid spending growth, as consumers are now more cautious, suggesting that the country seemed “mostly unhappy”.

So, are we quantitatively certified “happy” or “unhappy”? Why are we so obsessed over measuring happiness? Do these measures really reflect happiness? In today’s society, it has become common to associate “the pursuit of happiness”  with a certain level of material success and economic activity. There is a constant pressure for people to have “bigger, better, more”. Yes, governments have attempted to shy away from focussing on GDP and economic statistics as a measure of well-being and happiness. However, measuring happiness has its flaws. Have a look at the Better Life Index launched by the OECD. Happiness economists, like the people at OECD, have attempted to measure well-being by taking into consideration citizens’ answers to quality-of-life questions like: “How satisfied are you with your life?” and “How would you describe your health?”, and “Do you know someone you could turn to in a time of need?” How accurate and reliable are these responses then? Other measures of well-being include looking at measures like income, jobs, education standards, political freedom and economic prosperity. However, reality seems to suggest that people do not seem to feel better when they have access to more money or when they are consuming more. Rather, a better quality of life seems to stem from a range of mostly immaterial things. The happiness paradox then questions the following: Why don’t people feel better despite the high standards the Western world has reached in terms of fields like economic prosperity, political freedom, hygiene and health standards and life expectancy? The happiness paradox therefore belies the statement ‘more income means more well-being’.

In reality, what we realise is that economic activity is largely related to providing relief for unhappiness. We constantly seek solutions to the negative externalities such as environmental degradation that comes with economic growth. So, instead of investing time and money into indices that actually says “Yes, you’re indeed the happiest nation in this world”, why don’t we focus on the economics of (relieving) unhappiness instead?

Would you rather be the cookie cutter girl or the alpha female?

The following piece is published on Thought Catalog. This isn’t entirely a well written article. But, it was a fun frivolous piece written when I was inspired.


A giant, noisy, brightly-lit, gaudy carousel, whirling ever faster. People in the darkness beyond, watching and wondering.
Others at the edge, trying to climb aboard. Some who are clinging on precariously, trying not to fall off.
Those who are riding the horses and grinning giddily.
A few who sit in the still centre, sipping champagne.
The observer then looks at the controller’s booth and sees that it is – empty!  This is the modern world.

– Anonymous (A friend wrote this.)

You are the classic example of an Alpha female, often driven by insecurity and ruling by fear. Since young, you have focused on your achievements, in pursuit of perfection, that sense of satisfaction and achievement. All that gives you the adrenaline high, similar to what you get after a good run and consuming chocolates. People around you often see you as aloof, unemotional, and unsympathetic. You have grown accustomed to such views. You know you are not aloof, but you just find it hard to express your empathy towards others.

You are always planning ahead. In college, you take up additional coursework and attempt to finish your college degree in record time, while taking on internships and what have you that gets you ahead during the summer holidays, while others party on. Unfortunately, such adrenaline highs never last long enough for you to be satisfied with what you have. So, you are constantly on the move, constantly chasing after the next achievement, and the next big thing that gives you even more satisfaction. You never seem satisfied. At work, you find yourself always looking out for the next job, as soon as you land onto the current job. Your current job should always take you onto the next job. Otherwise, it is a no go.

With men, you never ask for their help. You are not of those girls that need help with moving from place to place or with their grocery/shopping bags. As painful and tiring as it may be, your pride and ego as an alpha female disallow you from asking for any help. You rather complete everything on your own, instead of asking for help. For that and many other things, men find you overly stubborn. At the movies, you constantly tell yourself that these teary movies are fiction and shedding tears would be silly.

After a few years at work, you find yourself having to deal with the increasing dissatisfaction with how things are  and with your own incompetency. You quit your job, convinced that you need further education. You take on another degree – be it the Masters, the MBA or the PhD. You find the need to constantly improve yourself, and to be the best in what you do. Your pursuit of perfection and excellence drives you insane at times. Getting into a prestigious postgraduate degree gives you the instant high. But, that adrenaline high yet again sinks soon after.

Sometimes, you find yourself wishing that you are in the darkness beyond, watching and wondering about the rest who try to hang onto the path that twirls and swirls one around. Sometimes, you catch yourself wondering if it is better to be a cookie cutter girl rather than an alpha female, and to be satisfied with settling down, accepting help from guys, being loved by someone and getting married. Then, there are other times, you wonder if you would ever get to the still centre, sipping champagne, and be totally satisfied and pacified by life, the way it is.

Would you rather be the cookie cutter girl or the alpha female?









“good riddance” to brick-and-mortar bookstores?

The following piece is the unedited piece published on Woroni.


Last Saturday, I found myself in the Borders store in Canberra Centre, browsing through the heavily discounted books. There were signs everywhere in the store, advertising the following “Administrators sale, everything on sale must go, all sales final, no returns”. Almost everything in the store, including the fixtures but excluding the posters, is on sale.

The administrators of parent company RedGroup Retail, who had already closed 17 Borders stores since taking control of the business in February, recently announced they would close the nine remaining stores (which include the store in Canberra Centre) in Australia by 17 July. At its peak, Australia had 26 Borders Stores. With the closures of the Angus & Robertson and Borders bookstores in Canberra Centre, we are pretty much left with Dymocks and The Smiths Alternative bookstore in Civic.

As a kid, I remembered the trips to the bookstores, spending hours in the stores flipping through books after books, pages after pages. Those trips to the bookstores have somewhat cultivated my lifelong interest in reading, with books by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl lining up my bookshelves when I was younger. While those books have since been tucked away, they remain my priced possessions. As an adult, browsing in bookstores remains one of my favourite things to do, arguably one of life’s sublime pleasures, which I am sure many would agree.

These days, the likes of the Kindle, iPad, other Ebook readers (e-readers), and Ebooks seem to have taken over the world of reading, and found its way into lecture theatres. A few years ago, it was novel to have students with laptops in lecture theatres. Today, it is increasingly common to find students scrolling through their lecture notes on their iPads or e-readers.  For the cost-conscious consumer, Ebooks have become a popular option, often much cheaper than physical books. For example, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” generally has a list price of USD 16 and is currently discounted at USD 9.69. The Kindle’s edition is going for an even cheaper USD 8.32. Judging by the increasing number of Ebooks available, prices of Ebooks are definitely coming down over time. While elementary kids’ books generally aren’t available on e-readers yet, young adult books often are. Besides, it’s certainly unimaginable reading a “board book”, often one that requires the sense of “touch”, to a toddler on an e-reader. While unimaginable, it certainly isn’t impossible. In fact, reading a “board book” on an e-reader has been made possible by Barnes & Noble, which offer a range of “Read to me” Ebooks under their “Nook Book” range for the young readers. Besides, apart from Ebooks, much cheaper online options have also been made available to consumers these days. Book lovers would know what I am talking about. Books sold on The Book Depository and Amazon are often considerably cheaper than the ones sold in bookstores.

With the rising popularity of Ebooks over physical books, and online bookstores, it isn’t entirely unthinkable to see the brick-and-mortar bookstores nearing the end of its life-cycle. Are we bidding “good riddance” to the traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores? Yet, as I entertain that possibility, I find it hard to imagine the day when my kids ask me “What’s a bookstore?”