Widgets Magazine


Measuring up to the happiness standard

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 expectations — 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 that I don’t want things,” she said. “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, about how indefinite economic growth is impossible given the limitations of planetary resources. I hinted at the opportunity to re-evaluate 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 welfare has been bandied about for centuries. It has floated around in the modern political realm for decades, since Robert Kennedy hinted at it in a speech in 1968 and the king of Bhutan coined the term “gross national happiness” in 1972.

The king was looking for a replacement for gross domestic product, a different metric for policymakers to maximize. But while we can all agree that human welfare 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 correlations between health, job security or family life and responses to questions like, “Were you happy yesterday? This year?”

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 the soul. At least, my kayaks think so.

Holly welcomes comments, criticisms, random happy thoughts and kayaking buddies. You can reach her at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).
  • Agreed

    I feel exactly the same way…