For the wealthy citizens of the Netherlands, greater income or a higher gross domestic product does little to boost the level of welfare. On the other hand, the sense of happiness can be increased by fostering the feeling of freedom and opportunities for self-expression. This was the message conveyed by Gerrit Antonides, Professor of Economics of Consumers and Households, during his address on the occasion of his retirement from Wageningen University on 7 July 2016.
The governments in the Netherlands and other wealthy countries would be well advised not to seek to boost their citizens’ income or the gross domestic product but rather aim for increasing their sense of freedom and self-expression. Promoting non-materialistic values helps boost the feeling of happiness. Intangible experiences include things like citizen participation and associated decision-making powers. But the sense of well-being also increases when individuals are less constrained by rules, for example. Reducing income inequality also has a positive effect on happiness, as does an unforced transition to more equal distribution of tasks between men and women in the household. ‘The government should not seek to accomplish these changes through material incentives or regulations, but rather encourage change through a variety of subtle measures,’ advises Prof Antonides.
The government would also do well to promote a sustainable way of life, for the simple reason that sustainable consumption gives consumers a better feeling. ‘This includes, for example, a reversal of the current approach in which we label green products. Instead we should label the non-sustainable products so the sustainable product becomes the standard rather than the exception,’ says Prof. Antonides. ‘After all, non-sustainable consumption generates a sense of regret and guilt, and the prevention of negative emotions weighs heavier for the consumer than the experience of positive feelings.’
Feeling of happiness
Besides sustainable consumption, greater happiness for the consumer can also be achieved through non-materialistic experiences like participation in paid work or volunteering, involvement in household decision making, co-creation (working with manufacturers on the development of products) and crowdsourcing (advising or investing in companies). What is important to realise here is that experiences and perceptions are more conducive to happiness than possession. This is why sharing tools, a car or other infrequently used convenience items is more beneficial to our sense of well-being than purchasing them ourselves. For the same reason, taking a cruise is more rewarding than merely buying a boat. We must also keep in mind, however, that over time the experience stimuli must intensify to attain the same effect, while the aspiration level simultaneously declines with age. Good advisers when it comes to choosing from the range of possible experiences are peers or older people with stories about their experiences, through what is referred to as customer reviews.