Summer: A Time for Measuring, Analyzing, Discussing — and even Experiencing! — Happiness

The following was originally composed as a set of notes for use by Junko Edahiro, who writes a monthly newsletter on happiness and wellbeing issues in Japan. See the website of her Institute, ISHES, for more info.

My own summer vacation, spent mostly in Sweden and the United States, has been a happy one … but the summer has also produced a lot of interesting news about happiness, wellbeing, and alternatives to traditional economic growth, in both countries.

Let’s start with the US. First came a special Summer Double Issue of Time Magazine, which had “The Pursuit of Happiness” as a cover story (July 8/July 15, 2015). Several articles detailed what makes Americans happy, and compared US results with the results of surveys in other countries:  the US ended up 23rd on a list of 50 countries. It also reported on fascinating genetic and neurological research that suggests Americans are more pre-disposed to be happy … because the country is made up of immigrants. People who move, seek novelty, and exhibit other “forward-looking behavior” are also more likely to be happy and optimistic, and there are certain genetic markers for these and related traits that show up more often in Americans.

In fact, these genetic markers for novelty-seeking show up more often in human beings depending on how far they are from Africa, the cradle of civilization. The restless types left Africa, many thousands of years ago, and the most restless kept moving. (Does that mean Australia’s aboriginals and Patagonia’s native Americans are the happiest people genetically? The article did not say.)

Anyway, it turns out that searching for new things is also one of the behaviors that is most likely to be correlated with happiness: the article called it “the joy of pursuit.” We are happier when searching for things than when we find them!

The articles also covered the relationship between money and happiness, and noted that “money can indeed buy happiness, at least in certain circumstances.” And within limits. Doubling your salary from US$ 75,000 to 150,000 does not make people twice as happy … but it *does* make them happier, say current research findings.

Of course, your money-related happiness also depends on comparisons with neighbors, as everyone (including researchers!) already knows. But in the age of social media, things get complicated, because now the whole world is your neighbor … and you don’t just compare cars or houses. You compare Twitter followers.

Americans, the article concludes, do not “simply inherit happiness,” but American happiness “has long been high and healthy — a simple gift of biology, history and environment but a gift all the same.”

See the whole article here:
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146449,00.html

Meanwhile, the whole Sharing Economy has now come to the attention of the most prominent sustainability voice in the US mainstream media — that is, Thomas Friedman. While Friedman is often “late to the party” on topics like this (he tends to “discover” things years after other people have written about them), what he does is bring the full weight of the New York Times to bear. And he also writes brilliantly. So his article about the Share Economy and how it is shaking up normal consumer markets is really worth reading, even if you already know a lot about this topic.

See:  http://nyti.ms/18tqX65

In my other home country, Sweden, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of attention and writing focused on alternatives to the GDP. A lead editorial in Dagens Nyheter (DN, the leading daily newspaper) took up the issue of measuring wellbeing, specifically the new study by Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza and others, which looks at the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) over several decades. Kubiszewski et al. concluded that GPI — which subtracts environmental and social costs from traditional GDP measures (among other innovative features) — peaked globally in 1978 but since then has gone down, even though GDP has increased. Rising income inequality and increasing environmental degradation were the chief culprits.

But the Swedish newspaper was critical of the study. “The concept [of the GPI] succeeds as advocacy,” wrote the editors. “But does it actually make us any wiser?”

Equality and environment “are not trivial aspects of development,” wrote DN. But “an index that is created to show us that money is not the most important thing is going to confirm just that point.” While critical of the GPI for simply reflecting its own set of values-based interpretations, DN did not defend the GDP; it noted that GDP sometimes tracks with happiness, sometimes not, and “does not say anything more about society’s wellbeing than annual income says about an individual’s wellbeing.” The newspaper called strongly for more discussion and debate on issues of money, happiness, values, and longterm sustainability, but concluded that one should skip the GPI, which it characterized as a “detour via an easily manipulated index.”

Well, whether or not you agree with Swedish newspaper editors, you can get a summary of the actual report here:
http://www.scidev.net/global/enterprise/news/costs-of-economic-growth-have-outweighed-benefits.html
or review the formal paper here:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800913001584

[NOTE: Of course I do not personally agree with DN on this. The *use* of the GDP is far more “easily manipulated” than the factors in the GPI, and all such measures are inherently normative and values-based. But I have a bias: I used to manage the GPI program years ago, and Bob and Ida are friends.]

The debate that DN calls for received a big jolt forward with the recent publication of a new book in Sweden (available only in Swedish) called “Swearing in Church: 24 Voices about Endless Growth on a Finite Planet.”* To “swear in church” is a Swedish phrase that underscores the fact that criticizing growth is essentially sacrilegious in Western society: you don’t do it. So the “twenty-four voices” assembled in this volume of essays are themselves a statement, because they represent a wonderful diverse and prominent sample of Swedish society, from Anders Wijkman (well known political figure and current global chairman of the Club of Rome) to Stina Oscarson (who runs the Swedish national radio theater) to Pär Holmgren (a famous TV weatherman and climate change educator) and Fredrik Lindström (a much-loved TV personality and language critic). That all of them were willing to “swear in church” about the problem of unending economic growth, and that they did it together in the same volume, speaks volumes.

We will see how much impact the book actually makes … but I take it as an excellent indicator that I was first introduced to the book by my Swedish mother-in-law, who had it lying around on the coffee table at the family’s summer place, on the island of Gotland. She knew about the book before I did.

As an extended family, we tend to spend our summer days on Gotland doing … well, not much. Lying on the beach. Talking. Playing volleyball. Cooking dinner. Most of which costs relatively little money, in pure GDP terms.

But ah, yes, it certainly does make us happy.

Alan

P.S. The UK also just published its second annual national happiness report. People are a little happier there this year:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23501423

* Swedish title: “Att svära i kyrkan – Tjugofyra röster om evig tillväxt på en ändlig planet” (2013)

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