LONDON -- One doesn't usually think of societies as having personalities.
One assumes, instead, that they are based on tradition, language, a shared culture, and many other things that are so complex that to speak of simple character traits seems naive.
But social scientists who study what makes some societies more prosperous than others sometimes find themselves describing countries in the kind of terms we use for individuals.
They notice that some societies seem more open to change than others. And -- perhaps more interestingly -- they note that some societies appear to more actively believe they can create wealth and prosperity than do others and are willing to take risks to do so.
The question of just how much societies -- or countries -- can "will" themselves to prosperity came up as a group of economists and sociologists met outside of London recently to discuss what factors contribute to making countries rich and their citizens satisfied.
The host of the conference was the London-based Legatum Institute, which annually publishes a Prosperity Index ranking 110 countries according to both their economic performance and their citizens' sense of well-being.
We asked one of the experts at the conference, Angus Deaton of Princeton University, to describe why some societies have willed themselves to better living standards and what it brought them.
Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs, pointed to Britain as an example. He noted that in the 18th century, British society underwent a progressive change in its thinking about the rights of individuals to shape their own lives, to acquire wealth, and to be happy.
That change was called the Enlightenment, a deliberate turning away among intellectuals from centuries of viewing individuals as bound by the social position into which they were born and by strict obligations of obedience to traditional powers and ideas.
"I think the history of Britain in the 18th century is one in which those old things began to die," Deaton said. "After a century of religious and king-versus-the-population civil wars, you get to a point where people start striking out for themselves and trying to reason themselves into a better place. And I think that is what the Enlightenment was about, and you see it in modern economic growth, which has its roots around then, and also in the modern beginnings of the rise in life expectancy and better health."
The British Enlightenment -- and similar movements in many other occidental countries -- encouraged people to ask questions and find solutions in a deliberate quest to improve the circumstances of their own lives and of society at large. There was enormous new interest in education, innovation, science, and technology, and among the many results were the Industrial Revolution and quantum leaps in medicine and human longevity.
'Spirit Of Reason'
Deaton said that British society's conscious decision to opt for the pursuit of prosperity and happiness was not merely a celebration of human potential. It was also motivated by such deeply personal moments as parents watching their children die because there were no known cures for their ailments.
"If you think of people in the 18th century and people in the 19th century, they watched their kids die, they probably watched a quarter to half of their kids die -- and that was true for rich people as well as poor people," Deaton said. "That was just an awful thing, and it is an awful thing that's there in much of the world today. One of the first things that begins to happen is that people begin to try to prevent their kids from getting smallpox. People start using midwives in the middle of the 18th century. This sort of spirit of reason shucked off the old prohibitions against doing these things and people began to explore new ways."
Today, occidental societies and the world at large benefit from the new ways of doing things that the "spirit of reason" produced and continues to produce. "It took a long time, it went backwards sometimes, but today we are living a lot, lot longer than even the lords and ladies who lived 250 years ago," Deaton said.
Social scientists who study what makes societies prosperous and happy do not presume to say that every society that strongly desires a better future will succeed. Just as with individuals, there are too many other factors at play, from the availability of resources to the influence of partner and rivals to make such general assumptions.
But it is intriguing that the societies today that top measures of wealth and well-being are those that value individual rights and freedoms, value the pursuit of prosperity and happiness, and value representative government. Together those conditions help citizens to achieve their full potential and with it, the full potential of their societies.