Economics of Happiness: The New Economy, Changing the Rules to Benefit America's People
by John de Graaf and Linda Sechrist
Most Americans are facing their most significant economic challenges in generations. From the hardships of unemployment to the perils of mounting debt, worry about the health of a national economy that depends on consumerism and market success dominates our conversation. But have we asked what the economy is really for?
Since the Second World War, we have been assured that more economic growth is good for us. But is it? By any measure, the U.S. economy, in its pursuit of constant growth, is in dire need of critical life support. Too many people have lost jobs, homes, scholarships and retirement savings, along with peace of mind, in the face of complex uncertainties. Those individuals that have jobs are earning less in real income than in 2001, even though they spend more hours working and commuting than previous generations.
We’ve had enough of the official mantra: Work more, enjoy less, pollute more, eat toxic foods and suffer illnesses, all for the sake of increasing the gross domestic product. Why not learn ways to work less and enjoy it more; spend more time with our friends and families; consume, pollute, destroy and owe less; and live better, longer and more meaningfully? To do all this, we need fresh solutions that engage America’s people in redefining goals for the economy (what we want from it) as opposed to the economy’s goals (what it demands from us).
An Economy Based on Quality of Life
Although an economy based on a high quality of life that makes people happy may sound revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a human right when he drafted our Declaration of Independence. Jefferson emphasized that America’s government was, “to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible for the general mass of those associated under it.” Likewise, the Constitution of the United States declares that government is to promote, among other things, the general welfare of the people.
Americans are able to achieve a better life, as we’ve proved many times in the past, benefiting mightily as a result of forward steps ranging from democracy, women’s suffrage and civil rights to inventive technological leadership. Although history shows that this has been accomplished primarily by changing national policies, any new economy delivering improved well-being is first brought about largely by active citizens that choose to invest more time in building a nation that reflects increasingly enlightened values.
Everyone’s quality of life—from today’s parents to future generations of great-grandchildren—depends upon individuals collectively working to build a new economy based on the concept of genuine wealth. In his award-winning book, Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth, ecological economist Mark Anielski explains this new and practical approach grounded in what people value most, which he states is: “Love, meaningful relationships, happiness, joy, freedom, sufficiency, justice and peace”—qualities of life far more vital than blind economic growth and material possessions.
Preferred Measure of Progress
To determine whether our economy promotes the greatest good or the happiness of the American people, we need to understand what makes us happy and how economic policies enhance or thwart our pursuit of happiness; we also need a better instrument of economic measurement than the gross domestic product (GDP).
The GDP counts remedial and defensive expenditures for pollution, accidents, war, crime and sickness as positives, rather than deducting these costs. GDP also discounts the value of contributions such as natural resources and ecosystem services, improvement in quality of life, unpaid domestic work, volunteer work, good health and social connection.
Anielski, in concert with economic experts such as Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economy, Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, recommends that economic policies aim to boost societal welfare, rather than GDP. All agree that a new indicator of well-being, such as the U.S. Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), could be used to more accurately measure economic progress.
The Science of Happiness
A respected “science of happiness,” pioneered by University of Illinois positive psychologist Edward Diener, Ph.D., dubbed Dr. Happiness, and other researchers, has existed for more than a decade. The study of what makes people happy and life fulfilling repeatedly demonstrates that the economic route to happiness does not consist of endlessly widening the superhighway of accumulation. Rather, it resides in a host of personal values that are closer to our hearts, as illustrated by the Himalayan nation of Bhutan (population: about 700,000).
For many years, Bhutan has measured its general well-being—as the people themselves subjectively report it—using a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. Its government bases policy decisions on how they might effect the kind of happiness associated with contentment, family, community, spirituality, education, compatibility with nature and good physical health. After years of primary research, the Bhutanese have identified nine domains for assessing happiness: psychological well-being, physical health, time use (work-life balance), community vitality and social connection, education, cultural preservation and diversity, environmental sustainability, good governance and material well-being.
In 2004, the first annual International Conference on Gross National Happiness was held in Bhutan. Hundreds of government representatives, scholars and other thought leaders from more than 40 nations gathered to explore the possibility of making GNH the true indicator of a country’s health and quality of life. As of 2011, a non-binding resolution by the United Nations General Assembly urges that countries now measure their health and happiness, as well as wealth. Sixty-six countries backed it.
Measuring Americans’ Life Satisfaction
Seattle, Washington, the first U.S. city to implement a measurement of life satisfaction, is parlaying Bhutan’s indicators—psychological well-being, physical health, work/time balance, education and capacity building, cultural vitality and access to arts and culture, environmental quality and access to nature, apt governance andÂ material well-being—as part of its own Sustainable Seattle Happiness Initiative. Spearheaded by Sustainable Seattle Executive Director Laura Musikanski and her team with encouragement by City Council President Richard Conlin, it may become America’s first GNH city.
Initial survey results, intended to spark conversations that matter, will be discussed at future town meetings in Seattle neighborhoods and used to recommend policies for consideration by the city council. Repeating the survey every couple of years will reveal progress.
Interest in a similar Happiness Initiative is growing in cities and towns from coast to coast, such as Napa, California; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Duluth, Minnesota; Santa Fe and Roswell, New Mexico; Bellevue, Nebraska; Portland, Oregon; and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Some 100 colleges and universities also are beginning to apply the Happiness Initiative survey.
How to Become Happier
To improve our own well-being within any economy, we need to attend to our security, social connections and the way we balance our time. Choosing to live with less stuff and lighter debt supports a better life with less income but more time, lower stress and better health. As individuals, we can:
- Focus more on matters of family and community and on building trust.
- Devote less attention to maximizing incomes and more attention to acts of generosity.
- Ask our employers for more time off instead of higher pay.
In our local communities, we can find ways to design more relationship-friendly places such as farmers’ markets, where shoppers tend to engage in many more conversations than in supermarket aisles (Worldwatch Institute). In cities, we can call for public and private spaces that facilitate social connection, instead of discouraging it via urban sprawl.
Ecological economist Dave Batker, co-author of What’s the Economy for Anyway? (film clip at Tinyurl.com/3tc9dlk), believes that moving forward requires greater citizen involvement in the shaping of democracy, laws and our collective future. By ditching pundits and talking with neighbors, city by city and town by town, citizens throughout the United States are moving to do this using newly learned techniques such as those offered by Open Space Technology, World CafÃ©, Transition Towns, Sustainable Cities, The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ Worldview Literacy Project.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and other places, citizens are cultivating a stronger sense of community with real discussions about local issues and economic goals. They aim to arrive at a clear-eyed view of what citizens really want from the economy.
In St. Petersburg, the culmination of Sharon Joy Kleitsch’s 10-year effort to build a flourishing community through helpful workshops on timely subjects, meaningful conversations and aligning constructive partnerships is reaching a crescendo this month at Beyond Sustainability: Ecosystems, Economics, and Education, the Institute of Florida Studies’ 36th annual conference, at Hillsborough Community College (Tinyurl.com/3avntte). Kleitsch remarks, “I show up, pay attention and listen for opportunities where my connections with policy makers, educators, nonprofits and community activists can help convene people in meaningful conversations that can make a difference in building a resilient community.”
In Oklahoma City, Sustainable OKC, a volunteer organization working towards community sustainability at the crossroads of business, environment and social justice, frequently partners with the city’s Office of Sustainability, the CommonWealth Urban Farms project and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative (Sustainableokc.org). The grassroots organization advocates shopping locally and sustainably.
Jennifer Alig, Sustainable OKC president, is consistently delighted by the growing number of residents that don’t just attend events such as movie screenings of The Economics of Happiness, but also show up to plant food to feed the hungry and join Commonwealth Urban Farms work parties to feed neighborhoods using the products of thriving urban farms on vacant city lots. Alig notes, “After events, we sometimes use Open Space Technology to talk about topics that people are passionate about and willing to invest their time in.”
The kind of society that makes for health, happiness, true prosperity and sustainability is one with strong local economies and flourishing communities that includes many activities provided by local nonprofits. It’s one characterized by:
- Local small businesses and banking
- Farmers’ markets and urban gardens
- Urban designs that favor shared walks instead of isolated commutes
- Public spaces for social interaction
- Circumstances in which buyers know sellers
- Businesspeople that sponsor and volunteer for local activities
- Salary differences that are not vast
- Citizens building a better world together
We intuitively know what is required to create such a society, starting in our own community. What we need is the determination to make sure the economy serves us; rules that benefit all of the people; a commitment to widespread quality of life, social justice and sustainability; and the political will to make good change happen.
John de Graaf, media and outreach director for the Happiness Initiative, speaks nationally on overwork and overconsumption in America. He recently co-authored What’s the Economy for, Anyway? – Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness, with David Batker. He is also co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. Fifteen of his documentaries have aired on PBS.
Linda Sechrist writes and edits for Natural Awakenings.