Correlated: happiness, material goods, and ecological footprints
Why your happiness matters to the planet
Surveys and research link true happiness to a smaller footprint. We trim and append this 2008 article from The Christian Science Monitor of July 22. The author is a staff writer.
By Moises Velasquez-ManoffBeyond a certain point, material wealth doesn’t boost happiness. Americans are now twice as rich as they were in 1950, but no happier. In the World Values Survey, they ranked 16th. Other rich countries, the United Kingdom and western Germany among them, show downward happiness trends.
Could a wrong-headed approach to seeking happiness -- consumerism -- be exacerbating some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems? And could learning to be truly content help mitigate them?
Psychologists quantifying what’s right with sane people note the obvious: humans are social beings. While food and shelter are absolutely essential to wellbeing, once these basic needs are fulfilled, engagement with other human beings makes people happiest.
People who describe themselves as happy not only get to feel happy but also learn more quickly and are more productive at work.
A large predictor of happiness -- strong social networks -- are healthy for you. When exposed to a cold virus, children with stronger social networks fell ill only one-quarter as often as those without. Belonging to clubs or societies cut in half members’ risk of dying during the following year.
Strong ties to community, family, and social institutions probably explains why poor Latin American countries often score high on happiness rankings, while relatively rich Denmark took the top spot.
In the hunter-gatherer world, relatedness, autonomy, curiosity, and competence – the very things that psychologists find make people happy – are how people succeeded and eventually did more than survive; they prospered.
Prosperity – or perhaps enormous waste - comes at a cost; humanity’s ecological footprint now exceeds earth’s capacity to regenerate by about 25 percent. The US consumes twice what its land, air, and water can sustain.
The focus upon material gain as the highest good seems to degrade the planet. “Extrinsic” values (wealth, power, fame), as opposed to “intrinsic” values (adventure, engagement, meaning), seem to go hand-in-hand with more environmentally destructive behavior.
Due to high fuel prices, Americans drove less this year than they did the year before. Perhaps preparing for the worst, they also bought double the vegetable seeds this year compared with last.
Psychologists urge policymakers to use indicators other than the Gross National Product to make decisions. What’s the purpose of an economy, they ask, if not to enhance the wellbeing of its citizenry?
Small and undeveloped, Bhutan uses Gross National Happiness as a measure of its success. The largely Buddhist nation is the happiest in Asia.
The Happy Planet Index takes a country’s happiness and average life span and divides it by its ecological impact to measure how much it spent in achieving its well-being. On this scale, the Pacific archipelago nation of Vanatu comes in first place, Colombia second. Germany is twice as efficient at producing happiness as the US, which ranks 150th by that measure. Russia, with its low happiness scores and relatively low life expectancy, is 178th. And Zimbabwe, plagued by poverty and political turmoil, is the least efficient at producing happiness on Earth.
Researcher Martin Seligman divides the pursuit of happiness into three objectives: feeling good; engaging with others; and participating in something larger than oneself.
People, he notes, find happiest when engaged in “self-transcendent” activities. What does this mean? Rather than making a gift of the latest iPhone, buy someone dancing lessons. Instead of taking a resort vacation, build a house with Habitat for Humanity.
Overall, people around the world have grown happier during the past 25 years. On average, people describing themselves as “very happy” have increased by nearly 7%.
The authors of the World Values Survey attribute rising world happiness to improved economies, greater democratization, and increased social tolerance in many nations.
Contrarily, insecurity fosters a materialistic approach to life. Scandinavian nations have consistently high happiness rankings by providing schooling and medical care, letting the heavily taxed people feel secure.
Advertising, which promotes consumption, fosters insecurity. That hinders self-acceptance, which is another predictor of lasting wellbeing. Some psychologists suggest taxing ads.
JJS: If we’re to use taxes, then let’s shift them off the values we make, onto those we take. The researchers mentioned progress in economies, governance, and tolerance. Every place that has shifted taxes onto the value of land -- location is something we take -- has prospered, democratized, and cut crime, somewhat akin to more tolerance. Confucius said, to be happy for life, love your work. To love your work, don’t expect it to provide all your income, any more than you should expect your spouse or children or cat to provide all your joy in life. Along with wages for workers and interest for savers, expect a “rent share” for citizens. It’d come from the recovered values of land, resources, EM spectrum, and ecosystem -- by charging users for the size of their footprint.
Since we’d all be paying only for what we take and getting back the same size share as everyone else, that should make everyone happy.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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