|Seeking Happiness on a Finite and Human-Shaped Planet|
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
12:16 p.m. | Live Updates below
I’m at the United Nations today for the Bhutan-led “High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” The details are nicely summarized in a recent Op-Ed article by Timothy W. Ryback, the deputy secretary general of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris. As Ryback explains, the meeting was approved in a U.N. resolution last year recognizing that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and “the gross domestic product [G.D.P.] does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people….”
I’ll be adding live updates here through the day (see bottom of post). You can get a sense of the conversation by reviewing the online discussion over a draft statement the group plans to adopt. The proceedings can be watched live on the Web.
Bhutan is a tiny, poor, once-isolated Himalayan nation well into the process of moving from monarchy to democracy and opening to the world. Recognizing problems attending a growth-driven economic sprint in other developing countries, in the early 1970’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to make his nation’s priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness. The goal ever since has been a mix of economic and social progress shaped to sustain cultural and environmental assets. (There’s a fun explanatory video here.) I first wrote on this concept in 2005, when several dozen Bhutanese leaders, scholars and other citizens, attending a conference in Nova Scotia, described efforts to move from happiness as a concept to a set of policies.
The New York Times
A continuous survey in the United States now gauges day-to-day shifts in feelings of happiness or sadness. (Click for full graphic.)
Today’s meeting (you can track it via the Twitter hashtag #gnh) reflects a global build-up of this notion under other names, as an array of nations and agencies develop systems for measuring well-being that go well beyond what can be measured in dollars. (The Gallup pollsters and the health-care company Healthways have developed a polling project that aims to be a real-time U.S. Well-being Index. I think that a short-term time scale like that — daily polling of 1,000 people — kind of misses the point, but it’s a useful experiment.)
On a different scale is the newly published World Happiness Report, prepared for this conference by economists John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, Richard Layard at the London School of Economics and Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University (the full document as a pdf file). You can read a short excerpt below.
Other examples include The Better Life Index of the Organization on Economic Cooperation and Development, France’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.
There are heaps of issues here, of course, the first being definitional. Long before the “pursuit of happiness” was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and ever since, the term has been debated. What is the good life? As I’ve written before, you can choose the Vegas definition or that of Plato.
As I wrote after the 2005 meeting in Nova Scotia, John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as a balance of individual and community interests. “The Enlightenment theory of happiness was an expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of the people…”
Given what I’ve learned from Dan Kahan of Yale and the other researchers studying “cultural cognition,” the deep, natural divisions among us between what Kahan calls communitarians and individualists (and others call liberals and libertarians) doesn’t bode well for the notion that nations, or the community of nations, will have an easy time settling on new measures of progress.
But it certainly doesn’t hurt to try, given the extraordinary gulfs on the planet now between haves and have nots, the signs that business as usual will be hard to fit on a finite, increasingly human-shaped planet and the fast-expanding capacity to share and shape ideas in ways that smooth the human journey.
I’ve written a host of posts that explore relevant themes, including my pieces, “Do the Top Billion Need New Goals?” and “How Much is Enough?” An excerpt from that post is worth pasting here:
This kind of examination isn’t just related to personal happiness or, say, environmental damage. John P. Holdren, now President Obama’s science adviser, wrote in “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being” that when you measure human harm in years of life lost (e.g., a child cut down by disease loses decades; a grandmother dying of a stroke at 80 loses a few years), the major afflictions of poverty and affluence do us in at roughly equal rates.
Other relevant pieces can be found in the lengthening string of Dot Earth posts under the tag “wellbeing.”
Here’s an excerpt from the World Happiness Report. Dig in and weigh in:
The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. For we have entered a new phase of the world, termed the Anthropocene by the world’s Earth system scientists.
The Anthropocene is a newly invented term that combines two Greek roots: “anthropo,” for human; and “cene,” for new, as in a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene is the new epoch in which humanity, through its technological prowess and population of 7 billion, has become the major driver of changes of the Earth’s physical systems, including the climate, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity. [More on the Anthropocene.]
The Anthropocene will necessarily reshape our societies. If we continue mindlessly along the current economic trajectory, we risk undermining the Earth’s life support systems – food supplies, clean water, and stable climate – necessary for human health and even survival in some places. In years or decades, conditions of life may become dire in several fragile regions of the world. We are already experiencing that deterioration of life support systems in the drylands of the Horn of Africa and parts of Central Asia.
On the other hand, if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment. “Sustainable Development” is the term given to the combination of human well-being, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.
5:25 P.M. Update
Here’s one of my Twitter posts, on the lighter side:
“Why should I care about future generations? What did they do for me?” At #gnh Enrico Giovaninni cites Woody Allen quoting Groucho Marx.
Mon Apr 02 16:31:56 via web
4:59 P.M. Update
Attendees worked over lunch to help identify weak and strong points in the meeting and the overall game plan for fostering new definitions and metrics of progress. Here’s the note I submitted on behalf of our table:
These are loose notes from Table 3, which had a mix of people, an ecologist (Gene Likens), a sustainability blogger (Revkin), an analyst of new economic models (Tim Jenkins), three grad students from New York University, and two people – a father, Michael Chender, and his lawyer daughter – from a metals industry consultancy (who are also involved in the mindfulness field).
Here’s a mix of observations, some negative, others positive:
- The young are substantially underrepresented. [Although a remarkable 19-year-old American spoke powerfully at the afternoon plenary.]
- Some of the bullet points in the action list have a prescriptive feel that is likely alienate important constituencies on a durably diverse planet (including people who are more individualistic and others more deeply communitarian). Too much detail can build counter-constituencies because it’s bound to irritate someone. With that in mind, the word “should” (quite frequent in the conference literature) is unlikely to accomplish what it seeks.
- Simplicity in other areas would be beneficial, with some at this table confused, instead of enlightened, by lists of types of happiness and the like.
- Some sectors are not well represented (finance, for instance).
- There is little focus on education (a point raised in the afternoon plenary as well). Models for education that would work best are those in which students come on their own to an understanding of their existing feelings on what is “progress” or “success” — through exercises, role playing and the like. Another great possibility now – through tools like Skype and Google+ — is co-learning across geographical boundaries (students in Bhutan and Baltimore learning together!). One example is Atlantic Rising.
- There was a strong consensus that diversity around the world – in metrics, government approaches, cultural differences, etc. – will long preclude development of common indices of wellbeing. This means that the most effective approach from the top will to foster and facilitate experimentation with, and development of, local efforts to build one-planet awareness. Happiness will, in the end, almost always be defined and determined locally.
- There’s little discussion so far of the role of innovation in fostering durable definitions of progress – not just in technology, but in communication, arts, diplomacy, policy.
- There was uniform excitement about Martin Seligman’s focus on points of action that are both measurable and teachable, as summarized in his acronym, PERMA (summarized here and here). What a great starting point for results-oriented efforts!
- There was broad recognition that patience will be a virtue, given the embedded nature of today’s norms and metrics. A tone of urgency will likely be met by resistance and generate unhappiness. Getting through the crest in human numbers and appetites that’s coming in the next generation will entail some acceptance even as it motivates the energy to foster change.
12:09 P.M. Update
Jonathan F. P. Rose, a builder and philanthropist focused on sustainable design and economics, is at the meeting and sent me this note by e-mail as an endorsement of the utility of Gallup’s global effort to track well-being:
In 2005, the international polling organization, Gallup began polling in almost every country in the world to determine each nation’s state of well-being. Respondents from a wide range of walks of life are asked about their employment status, their confidence in their government, confidence in the quality of public education, food security and a variety of other questions. They are also asked to describe their lives as thriving, struggling or suffering.
In period from 2005 to 2010, the GDP in Tunisia rose significantly, as did the country’s human development index ratings. The same indicators rose in Egypt. But the Gallup polls showed something different. In 2005, 25% of those polled in Tunisia felt said that they were thriving. By 2010, that number had dropped to 14 percent — a 44 percent reduction. The numbers were even worse for Egypt. In 2005, 26 percent of Egyptians described themselves as thriving. By 2010 that number had declined to 12 percent — a 54 percent drop. And in 2010, country with the lowest thriving level in the entire world was Bahrain.
And so we should have not been surprised, when, in the fall and winter of 2011/2, riots protest broke out in these countries. But in the summer of 2011, riots also broke out throughout London and widespread demonstrations took place all over Israel. Interestingly, the London riots did not take place in the poorest areas of the city. They erupted on the edges of the lower middle income and middle-income neighborhoods, where invisible fault lines fence in a pervading sense of lack of upward mobility.