Happiness is Oppressive?
The past few weeks have been quite exciting in terms of alternative measures of prosperity. This is in large part due to this June’s Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The event will focus on green economy issues, how we measure and track sustainability efforts, and particularly the concepts and goals of happiness and well-being. (As a refresher, you can scan a previous Blog, The End Game: Happiness & Well-Being.)
Leading up to the Conference, I was one of hundreds of international delegates invited to attend a U.N. meeting hosted by Bhutan on the topic of happiness. Plus, the day before that, the World Happiness Report was released. The U.N. speakers were engaging and insightful, as were conversations with global colleagues. (So was the cool factor of wearing those U.N. translation headphones!)
Equally thought-provoking were the subsequent series of news columns and commentaries pontificating their various points of view, with one opposing position being an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “The Global Happiness Derby.” In fact, the author’s closing line is where I stole this Blog’s title, “The happiness movement is at best utopian; at worst, it’s silly and oppressive.” Hmmm…
To be fair, the op-ed is well written and forces me to think and crystallize my thoughts; a hallmark of any good op-ed, whether you subscribe to the argument or not. And it is not my intent to counter his specific statements as his opinions are shared in general terms by other contrarians. Still, there are a handful of points I would like to highlight and share my thoughts.
The first is his subtly combining terms: “…subjective well-being (the technical label for happiness)…”. His (and others) treatment of these topics as being synonymous is a mistake. At the Bhutan meeting, in the World Happiness Report, and as other scholarly work state, experts are clear that these are related but distinct subjects.
Well-being is predicated on the conditions that contribute to your happiness. Or as the World Happiness Report describes, well-being is the “larger framework” under which Happiness is included (page 21). Also, elements of well-being can be more neutrally tracked: unemployment, wages, social equity, personal security, national stability, etc.
Happiness, though, is more personal and therefore less firmly objective. But this is also its greatest asset. Such a measure allows citizens to define their own happiness rather than relying on views and presumptions from economists, bureaucrats, or the media telling them they should be happy. This, though, is countered by the American trait of judging one’s happiness based on neighbors, friends, and socio-economic equals.
Point being, it is common and inappropriate for doubters to combine and then denounce both constructs as being purely subjective, squishy in application, and “silly”…which well-being is clearly not. In fact, well-being (and happiness, actually) is quite possibly the most important societal and personal goal to attain; and more crucial than goals based on mere material development, which is a nice segue to my next point.
A second and far more…ummm, shall I say ‘debatable’ statement is, “…growth is essential to maintaining existing happiness.” This assertion is in context to theories that aver as developing communities increase economic wealth, well-being and happiness of their denizens also rises…to a point. After a certain threshold, however, the relationship begins to disengage. Now, back to his quote.
First of all, once basic elements of survival and security are met, humans do not need economic growth to remain happy. Sure, there may be media and peer pressure to keep up with the Joneses, but that is not required to remain happy. This is supported by reports showing residents in countries with a lower GDP are just as happy, if not happier, than those in wealthier countries.
Second, and far more egregious, the statement infers that we can maintain steady growth into infinity. And further, that we must do so if we are to remain happy. Unfortunately, we as a species are quickly realizing that there are elemental rules and limits of nature that the economy does not recognize, but the global environment does…to our detriment if not peril.
But my main reaction is not any specific phrase or words, but instead the general tone of the piece that (appropriately) questions Government’s role in promoting and securing well-being and happiness to its citizens. This is what made me ruminate the most and inspired this Blog.
The author focuses on happiness specifically, which as argued above is not the same thing as well-being. And I do think it is difficult to implement policies with happiness as the objective. Still, what’s so wrong with Government overtly stating that the happiness of its citizens should be one of its top priorities?
And, I’m still processing his comments on Happiness as a Right versus Entitlement. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
That aside, what is far more doable, applicable, and perhaps even obligatory for Government is to address, implement, and secure the fundamental elements of well-being. That is, providing the opportunity for its citizens to attain happiness. What they do with that opportunity is up to them.
So the initial questions to ask are: what are those fundamental and comprehensive elements of well-being (and not solely monetary exchange), how does Government advance them, and how does it track progress? It is this construct that will be the task of international, national, and sub-national leaders in order to reconcile economic growth with ecological boundaries and social responsibilities. While the Genuine Progress Indicator is but one of several tools to address and track this measure of progress, the requisite dialogue that accompanies this pursuit is imperative to elevate and, more importantly, to enhance the way individuals and society value prosperity.
Sean McGuire, Maryland DNR
We need to place TBL and GPI under the banner of "ethical business." Part of expanding ethical business in America is the expanded use of TBL and GPI. Ethical business is the frame.
Previous questions and dialogue available below.
- Happiness is Oppressive?
- Location Matters
- Valuation Part II: How We Quantify Full Value
- New Interactive Tools at MD-GPI
- Beyond GDP: Year in Review
- Triple Bottom Line
- DYI GPI: So You Want to be a Czar?
- How Much are Those French Hens?
- The End Game: Happiness & Well Being
- Giving Something Back: Your Time
- Meet the Elephant: Valuation
- Income Inequality & its Effects on the MD-GPI
- The Case for New Measures of Growth & Prosperity
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