Measuring Up To The Happiness Standard
    By Holly Moeller | October 19th 2012 08:38 AM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I'm a graduate student in Ecology and Evolution at Stanford University, where I study ecosystem metabolics and function. In particular, I'm interested...

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    By all accounts, my friend Lori has a fabulous sense of style. Plus, she really knows how to find a bargain. The outfits she assembles from Goodwill and vintage clothing shops continue to defy expectation – and imitation. Years ago, when we both lived in Boston, I snuck glances at the pages she flagged in her fashion magazines. Now, whenever I catch her during her visits home to the Bay Area, I file away shopping tips while we fill each other in on our lives.

    One evening, perhaps a year and a half ago, as we considered the San Francisco skyline over cocktails, Lori told me about how she’d been flipping through a rack of clothes on a recent shopping trip when it struck her that finding the best deal no longer held the same appeal. “I realized,” she said “that I don’t want things. I want time. With people. Like this.”

    I knew exactly what she meant.

    Yes, I like the feeling of slipping into a fabulous new outfit. I have a disturbingly intense affection for my road bike and two touring kayaks. And owning an iPad has made it possible to (pretend to) do work while streaming football games on my laptop.

    But in the end, I don’t remember the cut of a particular hemline, the brand of my paddles, or the scores of this season’s Rutgers football games (though I do know that my Alma Mater is 6-0!). Instead, I remember experiences, and value them according to the happiness they brought me: that conversation with Lori; circumnavigating Douglas Island by kayak; spilling red wine on a white dress while dancing with friends.

    Last week, I wrote about the importance of steady-state economics, given that indefinite economic growth is impossible given the limitations of planetary resources. I hinted at the opportunity to reevaluate our priorities along new lines, lines that consider the value of experience, of family, of friends, instead of just physical possessions.

    The idea that monetary success is a flawed measure of human well-being has been bandied about for centuries. It’s floated around in the modern political realm for decades, since Robert Kennedy hinted at it in a 1968 speech and the King of Bhutan coined the term “Gross National Happiness” in 1972.

    The King was looking for a replacement for Gross Domestic Product, for a different metric for policymakers to maximize. But while we can all agree that human well-being stems from many factors besides money, how can we measure it?

    The Bhutanese incarnation of the GNH concept draws heavily upon the country’s Buddhist roots but highlights four policy pillars of universal appeal: sustainable development, preservation of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and good governance. Subsequent iterations have provided variations on this theme, emphasizing things like “subjective well-being,” or a combination of wellness measures ranging from economic to social to physical. To quantify “happiness,” policymakers rely on surveys designed in concert with sociologists and psychologists, looking for correlates between responses to questions like “Were you happy yesterday? This year?” and health, job security, or family life.

    Such metrics will never be as concrete as euros and cents, but at a time when economic uncertainty is high, many are being converted to the happiness standard. Last April, the United Nations held a Conference on Happiness and the Columbia University Earth Institute released the first World Happiness Report (in which the United States ranked 11th out of 156, beaten out by European countries like Denmark, Norway, and Finland). Tellingly, the report’s analysis found that, while richer countries were happier (with several struggling African nations falling to the bottom of the rankings), in the end, the happiest countries differentiated themselves on social and political factors, like healthy family lives and reduced corruption.

    For all the good that emphasizing happiness could do us, today we live in a society dominated by the dollar. Yet we’ve all had Lori’s moments of realization, when material possessions fall away, and only experiences and emotions matter. By keeping that realization in mind, we can adjust our individual lives – and gradually shift social mores – to value our whole human experience, not just the monetary and physical trappings we use as decoration.

    And in this time of economic hardship, trading in a shopping trip for a camping one can be good for the wallet, and good for the soul. At least, my kayaks think so.


    Gerhard Adam
    While I understand the underlying philosophical message you're conveying, that isn't actually very helpful to people that find themselves in financial straits.

    When people have worked for 20-30 years and are facing the loss of the homes, their jobs, their benefits, and potentially buried in a mountain of medical bills, it's a bit hard to suggest "going camping" as a solution.

    Admittedly if you don't have much, or don't have any obligations, then it is a good piece of advice to avoid yourself becoming frustrated by ambition as opposed to evaluating what is meaningful in your life.  However, for those others, it is merely a source of frustration, and there's little more annoying that someone that doesn't comprehend their problems tells them to "relax".

    Everyone already understands that when the news begins to talk about "what's important in life", that this is simply shorthand for "you're screwed".

    I apologize if this sounds like it is directed to you, because that's not my intent.  Instead, I simply wanted to raise the issue about the myriad number of other factors that play a pivotal role in people's sense of happiness, and it rarely involves those things that are purely materialistic.  In general, it is a sense of betrayal in having "followed the rules" for decades only to discover that they are considered disposal by society.

    This is especially true when the clear impression is that if one is a part of the wealthier classes, then whatever happens, someone is willing to bail you out and extend the possibility of more money later no matter how badly you screwed up.  On the other hand if you're only middle class, the expectation is that you must revert to poverty before anyone will help.  So the message is that if you cause an economic meltdown, you'll get help and if you're merely the victim of one then you're on your own.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Although you are spot on with this comment, actually
    When people have worked for 20-30 years and are facing the loss of the homes, their jobs, their benefits, and potentially buried in a mountain of medical bills,
    is the correct message.
    a sense of betrayal in having "followed the rules" for decades only to discover that they are considered disposal by society
    is an important point, same that war veterans go through after every war. Let them relax and open their eyes. It is their own mistake. They have believed society only too willingly. They have supported that very system 30 years and suppressed all who did not support their convenient belief. Relax, meditate, become enlightened - nothing else they should do, should have done 30 years ago.