Christmas reminds us that what makes life worth living cannot be measured

It’s not only that our metrics of success are qualitatively incomplete; the ladders we seek to climb are leaning up against the wrong things.

When we think about “successful” societies, we assume four objectives: financial, education, health and employment outcomes – but what if these measures of success are incomplete?

Every time a new model of smartphone is released, we have a new prime minister. So went the hyperbolic punditry around Australian politics since 2007, and understandably so – seven prime ministers in 15 years. This year, the rest of the world has joined in. More than 30 national elections have already occurred in 2022, with significant shifts in parliamentary power or government in the UK, the US, Brazil, Sweden, Italy, Israel, France, the Philippines and of course, Australia.

Political change brings together our hunger for novelty and our search for something better. We instinctively look to governments to solve our problems and deliver a better future.

Accordingly, whenever there’s political change (or the opportunity for it), there’s always new hope. The next leader. The next government. The next solution. What’s next will be the answer we’ve all been waiting for – so we tell ourselves.

Then the next election comes along and we have the same debates, the same divisions and – with relentless futility – the same hopes. It seems that the late journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was right when he said that “all new news is old news happening to new people”.

Why the perpetual cycle of hope and disappointment? Perhaps part of the problem is incomplete metrics of success.

Material outcomes are important, but it’s self-evident that there’s more to life than statistics can measure. Our need for friendship, compassion, empathy, joy, music, humour, beauty, humility, respect, forgiveness, dignity – to name a few. These are the things that add flourishing to mere sustenance.

They are also the things that governments – no matter how good – cannot provide. As the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson declared: “How small of all that human hearts endure, that part which kings and laws can cause or cure.”

These insights are not new. We know that there’s more to life than a healthy bank account and decent healthcare. However, even our attempts to acknowledge these truths seem to misfire. Accepting the reality that there’s more to life than money, we came up with new measures of human flourishing: The Human Development Index, the Happiness Index, The World Happiness Report.

These acknowledge that human flourishing goes beyond a job and a healthy set of teeth.

However, while they broaden our measuring field for success, they ignore half of the problem. It’s not only that our metrics of success are qualitatively incomplete. The ladders of success we seek to climb are leaning up against the wrong things. As a result, our hope is misdirected and we find ourselves looking for the right things in the wrong places.

Whether at pubs, dinner parties or newsrooms, there’s never a shortage of cries for “better government” and “better politics”. These aren’t unworthy desires. However, does there come a point where we’ve already pumped the political well for all that it has to give us?

At Christmas, we’re all hoping – as ever – for a 2023 with lower mortgage payments, lower utilities bills, cheaper petrol and tax cuts. However, a future of flourishing will need more than that.

Where, then, must we turn? If governments cannot provide us with our deepest needs, do we have to construct them for ourselves? That’s certainly one approach that’s been tried, and there’s a global personal development industry worth more than $60bn a year to prove it.

The message of Christmas offers an alternative.

It suggests that the basis for our identity, meaning and purpose can come from beyond our politics, our economics or our bank accounts. There will always be new mobile phones and new governments. But perhaps what we need most cannot be bought, earned or voted for. It must be received from beyond ourselves. Fittingly, this fits with what Christmas offers.

Max Jeganathan served as a political and social policy adviser in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and is undertaking a PhD on the ethics of human dignity.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Australia.