Monday, March 14, 2011

Happynomics

Roger Cohen writes in Saturday's New York Times about British Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to develop a "national happiness index" for his nation.  Although many Brits have mocked the plan, Cohen appears to approve of it.  He points out that gross domestic product may have been the most useful measure of a nation's success back when "the issue for many was survival," but today "most people have enough — or far more than enough by the standards of human history," and more money won't necessarily increase their well-being.

Cameron's idea isn't entirely new.  There's already one nation on Earth that measures its citizens' happiness: the South Asian kingdom of Bhutan.  Its index of Gross National Happiness, or GNH, includes indicators in nine different categories: time use, living standards, good governance, psychological wellbeing, community vitality, culture, health, education, and ecology.  Of these, only one (living standards) is purely economic, covering questions like "How well does your total household income meet your family's everyday needs for food, shelter and clothing?" and "In the past 12 months, did you postpone urgent repairs and maintainance of your household?"  The other indicators cover questions ranging from "How often do you experience frustration?" to "Do you know the name of species of plants and animals in your local surrounding?" to "How much do you trust your neighbours?"

What makes people happy may, of course, vary from one country to another.  For instance, Cohen notes in his column that "Brits link happiness to bird song, knowing themselves, the environment, responsible pet ownership, contributing to society, going out into the wild and reading Socrates."  (Digression: how they're supposed to read the works of a philosopher who left no writings, I'm not sure, but perhaps it makes them happy to think they're reading Socrates.)  Certainly, we in the West might have a problem with some of the measures on the GNH index, such as "Do you consider karma in the course of your daily life?"  Nonetheless, it does seem pretty obvious when you think about it that, by measuring our well-being solely in terms of economic factors, we're overlooking an awful lot of other factors—factors that may be just as important, or more important, in determining how good people's lives really are.

When I first came up with the term "ecofrugality," I was trying to articulate a broader, more inclusive idea of frugality than the simple concept of spending as little money as possible.  I wanted to take the word "frugal" back to its Latin root, frux, meaning "fruit," and show how frugality can be part of a fuller, more "fruitful" life in ways that go beyond money.  And the heart of ecofrugality, to me, was the idea that less can sometimes be more—that it's possible to have a fuller, richer life while spending less money.  Now it seems like a couple of world leaders, at least, might be on the same page.
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