Does happiness have to cost the Earth?

I just watched Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation’s recent TED talk, which I hope I can embed below. Marks and I both appear have a problem with the amount of media attention that the financial industry gets. For me, I don’t like the contradiction where science writing has to be dumbed down because “people don’t get science,” but the finance section of a newspaper is filled with so much jargon that few people have a clue what it means. He has a slightly different problem – why is it there at all? (or to such a degree, at least)

Why the focus on the strength of currency, the level of the FTSE or DOW; why is this pushed into our awareness so strongly?

Nic argues that these financial measures might not be the best indicator of human progress, quoting the end of Robert Kennedy’s lament against the use of GDP as an index of progress. Here’s RK’s full speech:


And here’s the gist if you can’t watch that video:

“It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Furthermore, Nic notes a particular finding – if you know how much energy you use, you tend to use less. ‘Smart Meters’ tend to reduce energy use, he says, and I’m reminded of a study in which people reduced their energy use when they get a letter giving them just that information – and that of their neighbours – and they are using more.

The argument is, why not put different information into mass media reports, bring something else into the forefront of our minds that might more accurately reflect progress – for example, how much energy did America use yesterday, how much did xyz country use? It’s an interesting idea.

It revolves around the Happy Planet Index, (you can find out more and download the reports here http://www.happyplanetindex.org/), which is a measure of happiness compared with resources consumed. Ideally, you’d want to get a high level of happiness, with low resources consumed, but this isn’t what’s happening in much of the world. Costa Rica is the boss in this department, achieving a greater level of happiness as countries like the USA, on only a quarter of the resources.

This might come down to fundamental differences in the values of these countries; how much focus there is on social relationships for instance, something that does not seem to go hand-in-hand with materialistic values.

I like thinking of the implications of this model – combining well-being with ecological efficiency. If you don’t believe in higher powers and life after death (which I suspect is the case…), you’d probably put your own happiness, and the happiness of your family, as one of your most important goals. But you’re also probably a decent, normal person, who also doesn’t want to negatively impact the happiness of other people.

By extension, should this logic include people who don’t yet exist? What’s the point of having a very happy nation if the next generation are unhappy because of it?

Anyway here’s the TED talk so you can see what you think yourself:

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