Satisfaction in life is vital, yet it’s not available in the market. You can’t buy it. However, there are some things we can buy that will bring at least some satisfaction to our lives. Nice clothes that make you feel good when you wear them, for example. School fees can go towards an improved educational and social environment for our children, contributing to their happiness and life satisfaction, at least while they are young.
However, there’s a limit to the happiness and life satisfaction you can get from money. You can buy more clothes, but your overall life satisfaction might be less than for someone with fewer clothes. By contrast, you can be happy or satisfied with your life without spending money, but rather spending time with a loving family and taking part in activities with your neighbours and the community.
In 2012, the National Statistical Office conducted a survey designed to measure the life satisfaction among Thais. Some 50,000 Thais nationwide were asked to score their happiness and life satisfaction on a scale of 1 (the lowest) to 10 (the highest). It found that Thai people had an average life satisfaction score of 7.6. People from the South gave themselves the highest at 7.8 and those in Bangkok the lowest at 7.3. Happiness and life satisfaction are subjective measures of well-being, sometimes used interchangeably. The survey found that Thais who had a high level of life satisfaction also had a high level of happiness.
The survey asked the respondents questions about health and social relationships and what the most important thing in their lives was. Interestingly, good health was ranked first, followed by a good family. According to the survey, certain kinds of social interactions contributed to life satisfaction. These included interacting with neighbours or taking part in community religious, cultural or sporting activities. The more frequently people partake in these activities the greater their life satisfaction. Having more money could, of course, improve life satisfaction on average, but these factors were not trivial.
The study also found that good health and being generous by offering help to other people brought satisfaction to our lives. By contrast, receiving help from other people actually eroded happiness. The reason for that was simple: those who received help felt inadequate. People who felt that they did not have enough were less likely to feel satisfied with their lives.
As life satisfaction is precious, researchers have used an econometric modelling method known as “shadow pricing” to convert the score of life satisfaction to a monetary unit (Kannika Thampanishvong’s and my November 2015 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies titled “Valuing social relationships and improved health conditions in the Thai population”). Basically, your life satisfaction score of 7 may not be the same as others who score their life satisfaction at 7. But, your 100 baht can buy the same goods and services as anyone else’s 100 baht. The study converted the measurement of life satisfaction to a monetary unit to explore how average Thai people valued social interaction and health conditions compared with what they could earn. The monetary unit used is not intended to have any exchange value.
The value of having good health was found to have about the same as receiving one month of income as it could generate about the same level of life satisfaction. Thai people who joined community cultural activities on a regular basis gained life satisfaction equivalent to 46% of their average monthly income. If they offered help to others, they gained life satisfaction equivalent to 35% of their average monthly income. And, if they participated in community sporting activities frequently, they could gain life satisfaction equivalent to earning 30% of average monthly income.
What this study suggests is that Thais assign considerable value to good health. That, in turn, suggests that public policy focusing on health, both physical and mental, is very likely to be well received by Thais.
Poor health not only consumes our time and money, it also consumes family and friends’ resources. Moreover, with public funding of medical care, it consumes taxpayers’ resources. The research also suggests that talking to neighbours, participating in community activities and helping others all generate positive values and should also be promoted.
Worawan Chandoevwit, PhD, is a lecturer at Faculty of Economics, Khon Kaen University, and an adviser of Thailand Development Research Institute.