Does Happiness Have To Cost The Earth?

Abstract from a talk by Nic Marks at the Gaia Foundation, November 2008. Written by Stephen Frank.

Nic Marks is Founder of the Centre for Well-being and has led the Well-being programme at nef since 2001. He is a statician who heads a 'think and do tank' team of people who carry out community action research projects. Nic was the lead author of nef's innovative Happy Planet Index, a global index of human well-being and environmental impact. He is an advisor to the Government of Bhutan, working with the Centre for Bhutanese Studies, on how to con- struct indicators for assessing Gross National Happiness (GNH).

What are human needs and how are they met? For years, Nic Marks from the New Economic Foundation (NEF) has been trying to articulate a non-economic language that allows us to talk about what is important in life. There is a long history of thought on this topic, but in a more modern context the word 'competitive' keeps occurring in the discussion. In addition, many experts, including those at the UN, have taken an essentially materialistic approach to human needs, generally ignoring non-material human needs such as a sense of identity.

In 2001, a new local government act called The Power Of Wellbeing gave all local governments the power to promote wellbeing in their areas in various ways. In line with this, NEF decided that the word 'wellbeing' would become a policy word and although he was not too keen on the word, Nic Marks thought this would give him a chance to explore further aspects of human needs.

However, he soon came across research on happiness and subjective wellbeing and thought this research contained a much more appropriate language with which to talk about human needs - what it is to be human and why that is only partly dependent on our economic situation. This discussion was not only about, 'How successful am I?' and 'How much income or wealth do I have?' It opened the debate on what is deemed important in life and how much happiness and/or wellbeing does a person possess. Wellbeing was defined as the subjective quality of people's live experience - about the experience of life and less about the conditions of life.

In 1946, the World Health Authority defined health as a state of mental, physical and social wellbeing, not merely an absence of disease or infirmity. The second half of the sentence is important because wellbeing is not just the absence of ill-being or the absence of mental health problems. It is about the flourishing, the fulfilment of life. It cannot be measured by absences - like the absence of depression. It is gauged by whether people are experiencing their lives as full and feel fulfilled.

A lot of this has to do with 'functioning' which is connected to being autonomous and doing the things that we do well. Another factor of functioning has to do with our relationships - our connection with others. Depending on how we function, feelings and thoughts about our lives emerge that are positive or negative; wellbeing has to do with how satisfied we are - or not.

Two feedback loops arise here. The first one is to do with functioning: people who do well shape their environment; equally, people who do badly shape their environment. If you have a difficult member of your team at work, you all suffer. And if you have someone who is really inspiring, they shape the environment positively for everyone. So people influence the functioning of the environment.

The other feedback loop is about the experience of life. If you are doing well and experiencing things positively, then you look out on the world much more broadly and see a lot more. You are more open to being connected to other people - to relationships - to learning. You are more playful and you learn all sorts of skills that you will be able to use later; the child that plays is the child that is going to learn.

Since 1973, overall economic turnover in the UK has almost doubled, but generally surveys report that people are no more satisfied with their lives now than they were back then. Using various indicators for his statistics, Nic Marks addresses the question, 'Does money buy you happiness?' Using social relationships as one of the indicators of happiness, he found that people in the lowest 20% income group, but with strong social connections, are generally as satisfied with their lives as people who are in the top 20% income group, but who do not have strong social connections. Yet it is common for people to work incredibly hard to achieve wealth, thinking it will bring happiness. Marks' statistics show that accumulating great wealth is unlikely to bring happiness. A more efficient way of achieving wellbeing would be to improve our social relationships. To get to the top from the lower or middle group can mean quadrupling of income. This would take enormous effort and luck. But to develop relationships with friends, to go out more and connect socially, is something within one's power and does not have to cost a lot of money.

Working on a project called Five Ways to Wellbeing for the government's Foresight Programme, Nic Marks and his team listed Connecting, Being active, Taking notice, Continuing to learn and Giving as the five things one can do to improve wellbeing. Sometimes when we talk about happiness and wellbeing we think that it is a state to get to - a utopia that we are going to reach and then stay there. But this is not the case. Wellbeing is a dynamic state. There is a lot of stretch and challenge in it. Having self-esteem is not just about feeling good. It is not just about contentment. It is not just about relaxation. To be our best we also need that stretch to go forward - to experience the challenge of the stretch. Utopia is today often imagined as a perfect, uninhabited beach. We don't generally imagine utopia filled with people. This is odd, because actually we are relational beings and, according to Nic Marks, the good life - in addition to the stretch-challenge we need - is the relational life, the interconnected life.

But ultimately, because the human system is entirely embedded within the ecosystem, wellbeing has to be linked to the state of the environment, the state of the planet. When we create indicators on progress or wellbeing we need to always be aware that we are entirely dependent on the ecosystem. We should be trying to measure how peoples' lives are going and, in some way, relate that to how well Gaia is doing. We can think about ecosystem-resilience and the health of the ecosystem, but it is somehow beyond our comprehension to know exactly what is going on there. But ultimately that is what we should be trying to understand.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI), launched in 2006, is an attempt to do this. It is a sort of efficiency measure, like miles per gallon, except in this case it asks how successful each country is in terms of the happy, long lives of its citizens - its wellbeing - and then divides that by its resource use - using the famous indicator, the Ecological Footprint (EF) - to get the HPI. Before actually working out the index, there is a scale of countries like the USA and the Gulf States with very high footprints and reasonable to good levels of wellbeing at the top, and sub-Saharan Africa where countries have very low footprints, and the people (statistically) live short, unhappy lives - very low wellbeing - at the bottom. When you work out the index from these extremes, these different countries come out with similar HPIs. In other words, a society with high wellbeing and a high EF will have a similar HPI to a society with low wellbeing and a low EF.

Once you actually work out all the HPIs, countries that do very well are two types - Latin American countries and small islands of the world, which do well everywhere because of the strong community life aspect of happiness. Of the 178 countries on the HPI list, Costa Rica is 3rd, the UK is 108th, the USA is 150th and Zimbabwe is bottom of the list. According to the HPI, it is as bad to have a high footprint as it is to have very low wellbeing.

It seems natural that people want to keep on improving their lives. The HPI helps us grasp that we now need to do this in relation to the planet. For instance, none of us really notices how much energy we consume. We hardly read the meter - we just pay out the money, usually via a direct debit. But if we saw a smart meter by the door as we went out every day, clicking up our total in actual pounds, we might turn the lights off more and turn our TV off standby. Maybe, instead of the FT100, the radio should announce how much energy the UK consumes - 'Has Britain reduced its energy today?' If we work towards collective goals aimed to reduce energy consumption, the thinking will sink into our unconscious minds and we will all develop a daily awareness of how much energy we need and how much we actually use. And not only will our footprint reduce, but by working towards collective goals, our sense of community will also flourish.