"Meanwhile: You can't buy happiness, but you can measure it" by Andrew Johnston IHT (Tuesday, May 4, 2004.)
"Quantifying happiness is a relatively new endeavor. In the past, if we wanted to know whether life was getting better, we simply measured wealth. The most useful figure was gross domestic product, the measure of the goods and services that a nation produces. When GDP went up, crime generally went down and health got better. Some time in the 1970s, according to researchers, that connection broke. It will always be true that people suffer in a recession. But when social policy experts subtracted from GDP the cost of unpaid work, crime, family breakdown, pollution, environmental damage and other factors, they found that for the last 30 years, rising hey found that for the last 30 years, rising incomes have not necessarily meant better lives. In fact, they number of people suffering from depression in industrialized countries had grown tenfold in 50 years." (My emphasis)
Very interesting, I thought. And this resonates with a whole range of things I'm seeing around me, everything from increasing angst amongst executives in large companies to the kinds of questions "ordinary" folks are asking themselves about how they want to live their lives. See the Netherlands-based magazine Ode, for instance, for one version of this from a younger generation of change-makers.
The original meaning of "wealth" actually came from the word "well-being". So wealth in its first usage really meant something much broader than just material and economic prosperity. I think one of the great projects of the present is to reintroduce this fuller meaning of wealth and well-being back into our political and social consciousness—and thus choices. Helping people see a broader range of choices, possible routes towards happiness, is a noble and exciting place to focus ones' energies these days; and I see more and more people deciding that their professional life should facilitate this.
Shifting our metrics and measurements is where many people are focusing their attention. Often the dry and boring domain of accountants, shifting the what and how we measure things is a high leverage place to intervene in any system because they form the "soft infrastructure" and shape the rules of the game. Metrics incent, prevent, reward behaviours and they focus attention on what's important and what isn't, which is why many measures are often proxies for deeper values and beliefs within a society. The fact that the priority has been given to economic progress over the last 70 years speaks volumes about what our society cares about, or less judgmentally, felt that it was supposed to care about. The fact that software is not measured in GNP is also an example of how hard it is for metrics to change with the times. But metrics and rules can change and should evolve with the times. Most people think these measures are sacrosanct and static laws of nature, which they are not. They are human inventions. GDP and GNP were invented by a group of experts in the 1930s.
So this article is just another reminder of the much broader conversation about what metrics and measures we need to create for our current context. I'm not 100% where the serious research and experiments are happening towards this end. One place to look is the New Economic Foundation. We also have the Himalayan country of Bhutan (population 750,000), a Buddhist theocracy, developing a Gross Domestic Happiness index, which is has been doing since 1972. Most "serious" economists just laugh at this project, but getting better insight into happiness-- and its implication for social policy-- is likely to come from reperceiving our world through a different lens. Other disciplines beyond the "hard" sciences will also play an important role. Psychology is an obvious place to look as is philosophy for wasn't it Aristotle who first talking about the Good Life? According to Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, there are three ways to find happiness:
1. The Pleasant life, which consists of experiencing as many of life's pleasures as possible, is what we mean most often when we talk about happiness.
2. The Good life, which is more about self-actualization and deriving joy and satisfaction with a more narrow band of relations, e.g. family and friends.
3. The Meaningful life "where engaging with a cause or an institution supplies a sense of belonging to something much bigger than you are."
Again from IHT article, "we should be asking what governments and corporations can do to recraft work so that people can see their jobs as part of something larger," wrote Seligman in an article, Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being. It's not surprising then that we have grassroots phenonoma like the Socrates Cafe and Philosophers' Club popping up all over the world.
[A book from one of the originators of the idea of promoting Socrates Cafes.]
What's amazing is that it's not just well educated elites joining in but people from all backgrounds just curious and wanting to discuss the big questions of life in a safe setting. (Read this article to learn more.) What does this mean? It's hard to say, but for me it's an indicator that some bottom-up forces might be building a head of steam in reaction to a wide range of dissatisfactions and angst within modern life.