Is Happiness Sustainable?

There’s been a lot of talk about happiness as a kind of sub-theme of the sustainability movement. At first it seems like a somewhat odd juxtaposition, until you consider the way that our consumer societies have been plundering the planet in search of that elusive state of mind.

It’s a bit reminiscent of that old Waylon Jennings song, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”

The first time I heard about “Gross National Happiness” was from Frank Dixon at a SOL Sustainability Consortium Conference about six years ago. Frank is the founder of Global Systems Change and the former Managing Director of Research for Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, which is the largest corporate sustainability research company in the world. Frank was talking about the Gross National Happiness indicator that had been instituted in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The thing that impressed me so much about Frank when we first met was the way that he was able to break down so clearly the various ways that our  flawed economic system incentivizes unsustainable behavior, by focusing on the means rather than the ends. Things like the failure to incorporate externalities into prices (which ends up passing them along to angry taxpayers who don’t see the connection), the failure to consider limits to growth, and the under-valuing of future generations due to the time-value-of-money principles that all bankers use to their advantage, have all conspired to bring us to the brink of destruction, while top managers, who have been misleading the public for decades, grow rich beyond comprehension.

What gets measured gets managed, and good managers know how to achieve results. But if we are measuring the wrong thing, then the best we can hope for is to make great strides in the wrong direction, which is exactly what we have done.

Take the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) for example. This is the primary metric that economists use to measure the “achievement” of our economy. It therefore, supposedly represents our quality of life. But if the GDP grows, does that mean that our economy achieved what it was intended to in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

According to a 2007 paper by economists Piketty and Saez during the period from 1973-2005, the US GDP, adjusted for inflation grew by 160%. That’s a good thing, right?

Certainly it was good for those at the top of the heap. Those folks in the top 10% saw a 66% increase in their net worth, while the top 1% got richer by 168% and the top 0.1% saw their nest eggs grow by 387%. But for the rest of us, meaning the bottom 90%, which means you and me and everyone we know (if you still work for a living); we saw our net worth decrease by an average of 3% over those 32 years. But the economists call this time frame a period of vigorous economic expansion, despite the fact that many other quality of life metrics, like literacy, obesity, infant mortality, childhood poverty, homelessness, etc., all went the wrong way.

“Measuring GDP alone,” Frank told me on the phone, when I caught up with him “is like publishing an income statement, without a balance sheet. It does not include the intangibles or the external costs.”

A briefing on the subject of happiness indicators, sponsored by the Brookings Institution back in 2004, cited Robert Kennedy, who, referring to the GDP said, “It measures everything…, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The story of how the King of Bhutan has made Gross National Happiness, the primary economic indicator for his country has been widely discussed. I have a paper here on the topic by Frank Dixon, dated February 2004 that he presented on a conference on the topic in country. The leadership of that tiny, primarily Buddhist country, adapted this metric as a way to ensure that as they began to modernize, they did not lose their unique culture, their country’s breathtaking natural beauty and their deeply spiritual outlook on life. It was adapted to help guide them in avoiding decisions based on short-term gain without consideration of the larger spatial and temporal context.

“In perhaps the most important areas, Bhutan appears to be ahead of many Western nations. The country is one of the few regions where humans live at or near a sustainable level. In addition, the country seems to have higher levels of happiness as measured by family stability, lack of violence and other metrics. However, life is hard for many Bhutanese. Western technology, products and know-how could help improve living conditions and better meet basic needs in many cases. The difficult part will be gaining these benefits while avoiding the environmental and social degradations that nearly always accompany Western-style development.”

Frank is currently working on an ambitious new book, as yet untitled, that will explore the issue of how to achieve sustainable prosperity, starting with the big picture: understanding how all the issues of the day are linked together through our economic system, and then recognizing how that system is and has been flawed going back to before the end of George Washington’s presidency. The book will also describe what we need to do to get it onto a truly sustainable track.

I hope to have the opportunity to preview some of the major ideas in the book, in this space, over the next few months, through further conversations with Frank. Keep checking back here for some very exciting ideas.

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RP Siegel is the co-author of the 2009 sustainability thriller Vapor Trails, about an oil company and a spill they wish never happened.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel about sustainability. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com