Last Tuesday I arrived back in the UK after wrapping up my semester at Yale as a World Fellow. It has been an amazing and formative 4 months, the influence of which I am sure will be felt for the rest of my life.
One of my goals for the program was to find – or define – a mission that will keep me energised and busy for the next 7 or 8 years of my life, and I would like to cautiously say that I have found it. It’s still early days, so I am not going to say too much just yet, but here is a teaser as to the way my thoughts are headed.
From thinking about psychology and sustainability, I started to suspect that the best way to talk about the environment was in fact NOT to talk about the environment. I felt that too many psychological barriers slammed into place when the e-word was used – scepticism, suspicion, denial, guilt, shame, hopelessness, helplessness, etc. – all of which are inimical to action.
I started thinking about how governments and companies could be incentivised to balance their short term needs to please voters and shareholders respectively against the longer term needs of people and planet. After considering various options, it seemed to me that the most promising direction was to use a new, more holistic metric as a measurement of success.
I was already aware of the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness, spanning 9 domains of human wellbeing – living standards, good governance, education, health, ecology, community vitality, time use and balance, culture, and psychological wellbeing – and thought it an excellent idea.
Around this time, serendipity stepped in. Over Thanksgiving I was on a trip to Seattle, and took the opportunity to connect with John de Graaf, to whom I had been e-introduced some time ago by our mutual friend Betsy Rosenberg. John is the author and filmmaker responsible for bringing us Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Bk Currents). At our meeting he gave me a copy of his new book, What’s the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness, which questions our reliance on GDP as a measure of progress. This meshed with the work of Professor Tim Jackson (Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet), which had already been a significant influence on me.
John told me that earlier this year the UN had launched an initiative called the New Development Paradigm, under which a working party will consider how to roll out this metric globally. This year the UK’s Office of National Statistics started to report on national happiness, demonstrating that the metric can be applied to a developed country, not just to small Buddhist countries in the Himalayas.
The more I looked around, the more work I found had already been done to find a more holistic approach of measuring human wellbeing. Various NGOs, consultancies, authors and speakers have been talking about these ideas for years, if not decades.
But no matter how good a concept, the timing has to be right. These early pioneers were the outliers on the bell curve, and my intuition is that the time is now ripe for the idea to go mainstream. The loss of faith in the banking system, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the Occupy movement, and the emergence of intentional communities, transition towns and alternative currencies, make me feel that we are ready for this new measure of success.
This notion really resonated with me on a personal level. Having grown up in a poor family, I was very willing to believe the Thatcher-Reagan ethos that money and materialism would bring happiness. I had to spend 11 years in the rat race, acquiring the big house, the nice car, the foreign holidays, etc, only to find out that these things did not make me happy as promised. Quite the opposite, in fact, with dismal work-life balance and a steadily declining self-esteem as I slaved away at a job I didn’t like to buy stuff I didn’t need. I had to go through a difficult period of soul-searching while I redefined my own personal measure of success, realising that measuring my worth purely on a financial basis was not working. Since that process of self-redefinition, I now measure my success not by what I own, but by my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, the quality of my relationships, and having a purpose and passion in my life.
The new paradigm also meshes well with my environmental passion. I have felt for a while that our excessive consumerism was a misguided search for happiness, an attempt to fill the void created by an increasingly secular and disconnected society. But it has been shown that beyond a certain level, additional material wealth does not increase happiness and in fact sometimes has the opposite effect. We are trashing the Earth and it’s not even making us happy. So if we could get people to look for happiness in the right places, as listed above, we could in one fell swoop be happier and reduce our environmental impact, in a win-win situation for people and planet.
Another blog (a short one) on this subject tomorrow!
Oh, and by the way, Happy Birthday to me!
[Featured image: me between outgoing Yale President Levin, and incoming President Salovey, holding my World Fellows Program certificate]