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Is Happiness Sustainable?

RP Siegel | Wednesday June 16th, 2010 | 4 Comments

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.

***

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

Follow RPSiegel on Twitter


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  • Johnveen

    Good article. It feels like we are collectively engrossed in a game of Monoploy while the house wer'e playing in deteriorates around us

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  • Don Stoll

    We need to hear much more from Bhutan, about which I’ve read before only in Eric Weiner’s “Geography of Bliss,” which includes a chapter that suggests the Bhutanese model, however wise and however appealing to those in pursuit of sustainability, may attract few rich-world adherents. Weiner meets Karma Ura, described as running “Bhutan’s most important think tank” and as “an intellectual force in this country” who “has thought long and hard about the nature of happiness.” He tells Weiner to “think about death for five minutes every day” in order to “be ready for the moment we cease to exist.” It “is a problem,” according to Karma Ura, that rich Westerners “have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things.” If Karma Ura has identified something crucial to Bhutanese sustainability, then Frank Dixon might underestimate the challenge implicit in integrating Western technology and the Bhutanese “deeply spiritual outlook on life.” One may as well try to integrate oil and water—the difficulty of which BP has lately discovered—as integrate a spirituality hinging on acceptance of death and decay with commitment to their conquest. Don’t we dream that our technology will defeat these, after all?—Don Stoll

  • Don Stoll

    We need to hear much more from Bhutan, about which I’ve read before only in Eric Weiner’s “Geography of Bliss,” which includes a chapter that suggests the Bhutanese model, however wise and however appealing to those in pursuit of sustainability, may attract few rich-world adherents. Weiner meets Karma Ura, described as running “Bhutan’s most important think tank” and as “an intellectual force in this country” who “has thought long and hard about the nature of happiness.” He tells Weiner to “think about death for five minutes every day” in order to “be ready for the moment we cease to exist.” It “is a problem,” according to Karma Ura, that rich Westerners “have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things.” If Karma Ura has identified something crucial to Bhutanese sustainability, then Frank Dixon might underestimate the challenge implicit in integrating Western technology and the Bhutanese “deeply spiritual outlook on life.” One may as well try to integrate oil and water—the difficulty of which BP has lately discovered—as integrate a spirituality hinging on acceptance of death and decay with commitment to their conquest. Don’t we dream that our technology will defeat these, after all?—Don Stoll

  • Samuel

    “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?”

    Economists don't use GDP to measure quality of life. If an economist does that, he/she is a bad economist. GDP is only one small aspect in the overall quality of life (in fact, economists prefer using GDP per capita – the share of the nation's GDP the average person holds in the country – instead of the general GDP). Instead, economists use the Human Development Index (HDI) to measure quality of life, which includes per capita GDP, violence, life expectancy at birth, education level, remittances (sending money from one country to another to support a family), income distribution, emigration rate, and many other measures, to measure quality of life. Granted, it doesn't have a measure for “happiness,” but that would be an incredibly difficult thing to accurately and consistently quantify. But we can guess that you'll be far more likely to be happy if you live with a higher quality of life. Granted, that is a sketchy assumption to make, but it is reasonable to assume that living in a country where you can barely feed yourself a few meager meals per week will make you less happy than living in a country where the average person doesn't have to worry about where to get their next meal. So, while it still has its shortcomings, it's far more encompassing and a far more accurate measure of quality of life than just GDP (or per capita GDP) by itself. Here's a page showing official HDI statistics to get a better look at it:
    http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/

    It sounds like Frank's approach is similar, but not quite identical, to the HDI approach that has been used by the UN since 1990. (I can't really tell for certain because the Gross National Happiness website you linked is down at the moment)

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