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Your money or your life: Where happiness lies

If current trends in Bhutan and Britain catch on, elections may soon be fought over national wellbeing, not just national wealth

by Stephen Hesse

Year-end holidays always elevate hopes for happiness, but with expectations set high it is not surprising that they often seem to bring depression and loneliness instead.

This year-end phenomenon is intriguing because it offers a glimpse of the entire year in microcosm.

In the same way we are led to believe that tiny white lights, bubbly drinks and glittering gifts will ensure joyful holidays, so, too, does our consumption- based economic model tease us with promises of happiness and self-fulfillment.

Don’t get me wrong. I love twinkling lights, chilled Champagne and gifts, but for me the year-end holidays always bring into stark relief the essence of a consumer culture that manipulates us year-round.

Holidays are a distillation of how consumerism seduces us; how masterful advertising and tweaked traditions are woven together to insinuate into our collective psyche the notion that consumption equals joy.

Inevitably the lights come down, the toys break, and the bills need to be paid, and once again we are reminded that lasting happiness is far less material than we would like to believe.

Each summer, I travel to India with Japanese university students to visit local NGOs that work with at-risk children. The Japanese are always intrigued, and a bit bewildered, by the barefoot street children, dressed in faded T-shirts and torn shorts, playing games of tag in dusty lots and studying in crumbling classrooms abuzz with flies.

The Japanese students are not so much surprised by the local conditions as by the local children’s apparent joy in living. With few possessions beyond the clothes they are wearing, these children are still bursting with energy, smiles and laughter.

Each year, without fail, one of my university students will come up to me and comment: “Wow, Japanese children never seem so happy!”

Of course this doesn’t mean that Japanese children are unhappy, or should be sent out barefoot to play in dusty urban lots — though this might put a smile on a few more faces. But it does make one wonder: Why do so many children playing with iPhones in Tokyo, New York and Paris seem much less happy than the street children of India, Brazil, or the Philippines?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is credited in history books with having said: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

If this is the case, and yet true happiness cannot be found in the serial consumption of gadgets and toys, then it makes sense to take a closer look at what happiness really means — before mass consumption undermines our planet and we find out too late that human happiness is rooted in much less destructive needs and wants.

This is where the New Economics Foundation (nef) is onto something important. Nef has developed a Happy Planet Index (HPI), which measures “the degree to which long and happy lives (life satisfaction [on a scale 1 to 10] and life expectancy are multiplied together to calculate ‘happy life years’) are achieved per unit of environmental impact.”

In short, HPI considers life expectancy, life satisfaction, and the ecological footprint of a nation’s citizens, to determine the happiness exhibited by a nation’s citizens while still living within the limits of the biosphere.

“It is possible to live long, happy lives with a much smaller ecological footprint than found in the highest-consuming nations. For example, people in the Netherlands live on average more than a year longer than people in the United States, and have similar levels of life satisfaction — yet their per capita ecological footprint is less than half the size (4.4 global hectares compared with 9.4 global hectares).

“This means that the Netherlands is more than twice as ecologically efficient at achieving good lives,” explains the 2009 HPI 2.0 report (see: www.happyplanetindex.org ).

“More dramatic is the difference between Costa Rica and the U.S. Costa Ricans also live slightly longer than Americans, and report much higher levels of life satisfaction, and yet have a footprint which is less than a quarter the size,” notes the 2009 report.

Of course, most of us in developed countries will say, “I don’t want to live on less, or elsewhere”; while most people in developing countries will say, “I want what the Americans and Japanese have.” But the point is that more stuff does not translate into more happiness, as our year-end holidays annually remind us.

“To maintain growth, Western capitalist economies have a structural need to sustain demand for consumption. But this feature of the system sets it at odds with a widely noted fact about human nature — that once our basic material needs are comfortably met, more consumption tends to make little difference to our wellbeing,” explains the HPI report.

It goes on to say: “Research suggests that in most reasonably developed countries, material circumstances such as wealth and possessions play only a small role in determining levels of happiness — some psychologists estimate that they explain only around 10 percent of the variation in happiness at the aggregate level. Beyond a certain level of income, increasing wealth makes little difference.”

In the HPI rankings, Costa Rica came in first followed by the Dominican Republic then Jamaica. China came in at 20, Japan at 75, the U.S. at 114 — and Zimbabwe was at the bottom, in 143rd place.

So doesn’t it make sense for nations to focus on raising levels of happiness rather than simply on economic growth?

One problem, of course, is that happiness is too abstract for governments to measure with certainty, while economic indicators provide concrete figures and percentages.

Thus, rather than trying to measure happiness, nations use Gross Domestic Product to measure economic change, assuming that this is a rough indicator of our standard of living.

GDP measures the monetary value of all finished goods and services produced within a country, including all private and public consumption, government expenditures, investments and exports minus imports. It does not, however, take account of environmental destruction, depleted resources, human rights abuses, child mortality and numerous other concerns that offer a truer measure of our quality of life and a nation’s potential for maintaining environmental and economic sustainability in the long term.

In fact, environmental destruction can actually improve a nation’s GDP. The huge costs of the goods and services needed to clean up a massive oil spill can raise GDP, while the loss of marine resources that might otherwise have been caught and sold is not registered as a loss of GDP.

One nation, however, has decided to look beyond GDP. In 2008, Bhutan adopted a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, seeking an alternative means of viewing the health, wealth and happiness of its nation’s people.

GNH offers a more comprehensive measurement of wellbeing by tracking the nation’s economic output, as well as its political performance and policies, environmental impacts, the mental and physical health of its citizens, and the nation’s cultural and spiritual opportunities and growth.

And last month, in a move that suggests happiness research is moving beyond think tanks and the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron announced a plan to measure his nation’s happiness.

“We’ll continue to measure GDP as we’ve always done, but it is high time we admitted that, taken on its own, GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress,” stated Cameron.

Politicians and economists rooted in the status quo will surely hem and haw at a move away from GDP, but Cameron is on the right track, citing the words of Robert Kennedy, the late former U.S. Senator and Attorney General who criticized the reliance on GDP.

In a campaign speech in 1968, the year he was assassinated, Kennedy said: “Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.

“Our gross national product . . . if we judge the United States of America by that — counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our cities . . . and it counts the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is the director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at: stevehesse@hotmail.com.