One of the strongest arguments in favour of prioritising wellbeing is that our obsession with economic growth is, over the long-term, ecologically unsustainable. Growth depends on the consumption of natural resources, which have natural limits before they are degraded or exhausted (we cannot burn the Amazon rainforest forever). Infinite growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources.
Instead of measuring GDP, perhaps we should be measuring the “happiness” of our societies, and maybe happiness is not always dependent on having more and more stuff. Advocates of wellbeing argue it might be possible to scale back consumption (possibly even degrow our economies) and still increase overall happiness.
But what IS happiness? In order to measure something, you have to quantify it. There are various indexes purporting to measure wellbeing or happiness, but are they measuring the right things?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Stefania, who asks: “What is happiness?” and adds that, for her, it is more than just material possessions; it is “the family, the house, the community, the story of who we are and how we learn from it, the healthy nature around me”.
So, what is happiness? We put the question to Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford, Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre and Associate Editor of the UN World Happiness Report. What would he say?
That’s such an important and difficult question to answer, especially in less than a minute. But it’s also a question that philosophers, and many others, have been dealing with (and cracking their heads over) for 2000 years, starting with Aristotle, and probably even before.
I think one general definition that most people can find themselves [agreeing with] would be that happiness and wellbeing are ‘how we are doing’ as individuals and communities, and how that makes us feel. Where the rubber really hits the road is when we go out and measure it. So, when we really have to define it more properly or accurately, then we tend to come down to the notion of ‘life satisfaction’. So, we’ll ask people on a scale of 1 to 10, who satisfied they are with their life [at the moment]. That allows people to essentially kind of define it how they want, or how they themselves percieve wellbeing, and what drives it. That gives us an answer about how they feel their life is going.
That is kind of the essence, in our minds, as economists and empirical scientists, of how to define wellbeing… Now, I would add that within wellbeing there are essentially dimensions that didn’t quite come through in Stefania’s description, which is that on the one hand there is the ‘evaluative’ aspect of wellbeing, which is how you evaluate your life, just the way we’ve just defined it. But there’s also more ‘in the moment’ aspects, ‘effective wellbeing’, asking how you how happy you are in this very moment – are you smiling, or experiencing stress or worry? And the third thing would be the ‘eudaimonic’, which Aristotle refered to as flourishing and thriving, more to do with purpose and meaning, really.
So, putting these three dimensions together – the evaluative, the effective, and the eudaimonic – then you get a good overview of how people are really doing in life.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Deb Shapiro, a personal development coach and author of 18 books on personal development, meditation and social action, including Your Body Speaks Your Mind. What would she say?
The way she has of describing happiness is perfect, other than it’s all outside of her – it’s dependent on something or someone being there. And, as much as it’s the community, the family, yes, that’s where we find happiness – but the deeper happiness, in my experience, the real happiness is within ourselves regardless of what’s out there. Regardless of who, or what is going on in our lives, we can have a place of really deep happiness within ourselves which really comes from being very comfortable in our skin, from being at home with ourselves.
I’m not saying that inner happiness is easy to find. Due to a neurological disorder I cannot use my legs, no walking or even standing. For the past 4 years I have lived in a wheelchair and have rarely left home. This could be experienced as a tremendous hardship or limitation creating a loss of pleasure and joy. But I chose to make friends and be at peace with my circumstances, to find an inner joy. Being alive includes hardship, but our happiness needn’t be dependent on a freedom from suffering. It comes by making friends with what is.
How do you define happiness? Is there more to life than money? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!