Pursuit of happiness

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

We live in a time of high anxiety. Despite the world’s unprecedented total wealth, there is vast insecurity, unrest, and dissatisfaction. In the United States, a large majority of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track.” Pessimism has soared. The same is true in many other places.

Against this backdrop, the time has come to reconsider the basic sources of happiness in our economic life. The relentless pursuit of higher income is leading to unprecedented inequality and anxiety, rather than to greater happiness and life satisfaction. Economic progress is important and can greatly improve the quality of life, but only if it is pursued in line with other goals.

In this respect, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has been leading the way. Forty years ago, Bhutan’s fourth king, young and newly installed, made a remarkable choice: Bhutan should pursue “gross national happiness” rather than gross national product. Since then, the country has been experimenting with an alternative, holistic approach to development that emphasizes not only economic growth, but also culture, mental health, compassion, and community.

Dozens of experts recently gathered in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, to take stock of the country’s record. I was co-host with Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, a leader in sustainable development and a great champion of the concept of “GNH.” We assembled in the wake of a declaration in July by the United Nations General Assembly calling on countries to examine how national policies can promote happiness in their societies.

All who gathered in Thimphu agreed on the importance of pursuing happiness rather than pursuing national income. The question we examined is how to achieve happiness in a world that is characterized by rapid urbanization, mass media, global capitalism, and environmental degradation. How can our economic life be re-ordered to recreate a sense of community, trust, and environmental sustainability?

Here are some of the initial conclusions. First, we should not denigrate the value of economic progress. When people are hungry, deprived of basic needs such as clean water, health care, and education, and without meaningful employment, they suffer. Economic development that alleviates poverty is a vital step in boosting happiness.

Second, relentless pursuit of GNP to the exclusion of other goals is also no path to happiness. In the US, GNP has risen sharply in the past 40 years, but happiness has not. Instead, single-minded pursuit of GNP has led to great inequalities of wealth and power, fueled the growth of a vast underclass, trapped millions of children in poverty, and caused serious environmental degradation.

Third, happiness is achieved through a balanced approach to life by both individuals and societies. As individuals, we are unhappy if we are denied our basic material needs, but we are also unhappy if the pursuit of higher incomes replaces our focus on family, friends, community, compassion, and maintaining internal balance. As a society, it is one thing to organize economic policies to keep living standards on the rise, but quite another to subordinate all of society’s values to the pursuit of profit.

Yet politics in the US has increasingly allowed corporate profits to dominate all other aspirations: fairness, justice, trust, physical and mental health, and environmental sustainability. Corporate campaign contributions increasingly undermine the democratic process, with the blessing of the US Supreme Court.

Fourth, global capitalism presents many direct threats to happiness. It is destroying the natural environment through climate change and other kinds of pollution, while a relentless stream of oil-industry propaganda keeps many people ignorant of this. It is weakening social trust and mental stability, with the prevalence of clinical depression apparently on the rise. The mass media have become outlets for corporate “messaging,” much of it overtly anti-scientific, and Americans suffer from an increasing range of consumer addictions.

Consider how the fast-food industry uses oils, fats, sugar, and other addictive ingredients to create unhealthy dependency on foods that contribute to obesity. One-third of all Americans are now obese. The rest of the world will eventually follow unless countries restrict dangerous corporate practices, including advertising unhealthy and addictive foods to young children.

The problem is not just foods. Mass advertising is contributing to many other consumer addictions that imply large public-health costs, including excessive TV watching, gambling, drug use, cigarette smoking, and alcoholism.

Fifth, to promote happiness, we must identify the many factors other than GNP that can raise or lower society’s well-being. Most countries invest to measure GNP, but spend little to identify the sources of poor health (like fast foods and excessive TV watching), declining social trust, and environmental degradation. Once we understand these factors, we can act.

The mad pursuit of corporate profits is threatening us all. To be sure, we should support economic growth and development, but only in a broader context: one that promotes environmental sustainability and the values of compassion and honesty that are required for social trust. The search for happiness should not be confined to the beautiful mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

About Michaela

I am a wanderer and a wonderer, like you are. I love our journey and to walk in the company of friends – to learn, experience, share, laugh, cry and above all I simply love this marvelous, magical, mysterious life. I have no plan (cannot believe I am saying this) and my only intention is to be truthful to myself and others.
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11 Responses to Pursuit of happiness

  1. The author makes undeniably rational points. However it is rationality that got us into this position in the first place.
    The rational relative mind along with the ego both creates needs and attempts to satisfied those that are recognized. Ideas such as more is better, the belief in lack and the necessity of difference are fundamental to this relative experience.

    The word and idea of happiness is in many ways a misnomer. It invites such ideas as there is an opposite to the feeling of being happy. How about instead we think of and use words like balance and contentment. I know these too have possible opposites. All such words and concepts are often taken in the context that one must do certain things to have or be those. They are most often colored by time and lack. We don’t have those Now so we must “do” something in order to Be in those states.

    If one looks at the world as offering enough right Now for everyone, it is a movement away from lack and need into Acceptance of the Perfection of Now. There is plenty for everyone, it is and has always been about what degree of a balanced life experience does one wish to share? If a person is starving somewhere are there resources to stop that? Are we going to chose to allocate and share those resources?

    We humans tend to horde everything including our happiness. We personalize happiness often afraid of sharing it. Then there are those that believe there can be too much happiness. Too much happiness is not realistic just as there can be too much Love. The author points to that there can be too much greed, corporate influence and too much identification with things. He doesn’t look at why such things have become a part of many peoples lives.

    To me there is no such thing as too much of anything, just as there is no such thing as chaos. It is our egoic selves that is responsible for such thinking. Our world experience right Now is due to this. So what would have to happen to change our experience? For starters it would be moving away from our reliance on and trust in the egocentered self to guide us. Move away from “doing” to Being.

    There are many right Now who are involved in this process and in relative time the transition will complete itself. I have no worries or concerns about this.

    • Michaela says:

      What is so amazing to me is that opinions like this one is being shared by veritable grounded economists with tenure ( as opposed to airy fairy new age thinkers). Maybe they are not as advanced in terms of the spiritual paradoxes, but just they fact that they all seem to say – the old is no longer working and we cant see what is next, is just awe-inspirimg to me.

      As always, thanks for your comment !

  2. Michaela to me nothing about these changes is all that awe inspiring or unexpected. I understand it to be nothing more or less than a Perfectly expressed progression of a very natural process.

    We are in a sense changing our clothes collectively. The old clothes no longer fit and are very worn.

    I remember the movie “Cocoon”. What a wonderful symbolic representation of what is going on.

  3. Very interesting post and comments – I think that happiness is a bit of a will-o’-the-wisp – it recedes the more you chase it. Like peace, happiness is an outcome – a resultant state of many factors rather than a concrete, attainable end in itself – which is why it includes safety, education, food security etc etc etc. Chasing happiness per se leads us into all sorts of trouble and seldom results in happiness, ironically enough.

    • Michaela says:

      Chasing happiness guarantees misery – as one conditions the other. We often forget that. Maybe it is only dependent on one thing – if can we accept the current moment ?

  4. fatima says:

    The question we examined is how to achieve happiness in a world that is characterized by rapid urbanization, mass media, global capitalism, and environmental degradation. How can our economic life be re-ordered to recreate a sense of community, trust, and environmental sustainability?

    I always like to hear about this little country Bhutan and it’s GNH. Is it true that they have been successful? If so, then that is a very worthy question for world leaders to examine. What did Bhutan do; or what are they doing to achieve their goals that could be brought into the public arena? Even something to support national government and academic conversation would be good. Instead the author didn’t really say anything tangible, just the usual opinions and a rewrite of what is wrong. I mean, we know all that.

    He has good credentials it appears but…

    Disappointing to say the least. For an economist it would be nice if he were a little less airy fairy.

    • Michaela says:

      I posted the article because I thought it was amazing that an influential scholar and thinker would pick up on the notion of happiness being more important than GNP. We used to think that one conditions the other – that was the money centered thinking. But now, it is becoming so obvious, that chasing after money does not buy you happiness….even writing it sounds banal, but it is actually a major step forward for humanity in the 21st century.

  5. fatima says:

    p.s. I wonder who these ‘dozens of experts’ were? Maybe some of the others would have something more interesting to say.

  6. fatima says:

    Michaela how is it I missed your first post? Time lag? but yes to that…one person at a time. May the balance be tipped.

    and as for your reason for posting this article and subject of Bhutan in general and, really, your interest in “Making new from old” somehow mirrors my own. I so much appreciate what you are exploring here.

    my love you,
    Fatima

  7. fatima says:

    p.s. thanks for the link. He has a gentle look.

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