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Emotional Economics: Measuring What Matters

By Ali Hart

Since the economy came crashing down on us in 2008, there's been a growing consensus that our economic system as we know it is not sustainable. What we've since learned is that money is fiction and the security we think we've been building all these years is a myth. Other than its dysfunction, nothing in the conventional economy seems real. So what does the new economy that everyone's talking about look like?

A clear theme at Sustainable Brands '11 is the importance of our emotions, particularly happiness. In 1972, Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck established the term "gross national happiness" which aims to measure quality of life or social progress as opposed to gross domestic product, which is only concerned with financial gains. Jules Peck of Abundancy Partners in the UK has applied this concept to the globe with the Happy Planet Index (HPI). Costa Rica took first place out of 143 countries measured in 2009. The US came in at an embarrassing 113. The measurement isn't about happiness per se, but about a country's ability to provide for the well-being of its people without exceeding the limits of equitable resource consumption. An economy that achieves this balance is considered a Wellness Economy and, according to Peck, requires a decoupling of intensity and scale. He goes on to say that if you design an economy right, you don't need to rely on growth. So what do you need?

Martin Seligman's Flourish has been referenced frequently at the conference. In his book, Seligman identifies what constitutes well-being: Positive Emotion (happiness), Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment (PERMA). Peck urges that we need to have flourishing enterprises in order to become a Wellness Economy. However, an important element is missing from this equation.

Consumer researchers at the conference revealed not only that they were trying to identify a "happiness quotient", but also that empathy was extremely important for sustainability. More specifically, Ci Research, a UK-based market research agency, found that people who participate in meditation and/or prayer have more empathy and that these people respond to brand stories more than most. Interestingly, Buddhism is one of the pillars of Bhutan's economy and meditation is a crucial part of the practice.

It appears that if our population focused more on our spirituality, our empathy for flourishing enterprises would, ahem, flourish and our Wellness Economy would boom. Considering the state of our economy, it wouldn’t be surprising if more people turned to spirituality for a sense of security.

As a former New Yorker, in the past I may have written this off as weird California hippie talk. But there’s certainly something bigger happening here and it’s on a global scale: the UN and EU, among others, have begun to measure national metrics beyond GDP.

On a more local level, what are you doing in your life or work to measure meaning? Conventional MBAs are taught to manage what they can measure. If we can measure meaning and happiness, we will manage and, more importantly, nurture it.


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart headshot

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

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