Jun 1, 2012

Happiness is More than Pleasure

(Guest post by Eric Irons on May 30, 2012)

I’ve always been suspicious of people who equate happiness with pleasure and unhappiness with pain. It’s a simplistic model woefully inadequate to accurately assess such a multifarious concept. If the pursuit of happiness were about minimizing pain and capitalizing on pleasure, we would be a nation addicted to immediate gratification, drugged on cheap painkillers, obese from fast food, and using up our natural resources to fulfill shortsighted objectives. We would identify as consumers in our everyday lives and see our overall life satisfaction drop as the country continued to grow. In fact, we wouldn’t be that much different from how we are now.

On May 17, Hunter Lovins, prolific author, Right Livelihood Prize recipient, and professor at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, gave a presentation at the Seattle Public Library entitled “The Business Case for Gross National Happiness”. For those who are unfamiliar with the term Gross National Happiness, it’s a term coined by Jigme Singye Wangchu, then the prime minister of Bhutan. It signaled a major shift in political focus for Bhutan and heralded the start of a global crusade for quantifying happiness that recently became a UN initiative. Essentially, GNH prioritizes the holistic happiness of a country’s people over the more conventional measure, Gross Domestic Product, which only measures economic growth.

As Lovins explained, if there really is a case for sustainable business, then one would expect it to arise organically, indeed spontaneously, in existing businesses, much like how the arrangement of leaves around a stem would develop to maximize its capture of light. Lovins found that successful companies that exhibited the most growth (even during the economic crisis) placed a heavy emphasis on sustainability. She even makes the argument that the entire economic collapse was driven by unsustainable business practices.

It makes perfect sense that unsustainable habits are unsuitable for our biosphere; we are a species living on a planet with finite resources, yet we have developed a dominant socioeconomic paradigm of unlimited growth. With the current paradigm, we are outstripping our resources faster than the planet can replenish them – a trend that can only lead to collapse, which is why it is so astounding that some people believe current practices can go on indefinitely. After all, as Lovins put it, what is the business case for ending life on earth?

As the Kyoto Protocol is set to expire this year, it may become ever more imperative for the world to shift from the one-dimensional GDP metric to a more holistic measure of life satisfaction that includes not only economic prosperity but also human, natural, and cultural capital. Markets are a good servant, a bad master, and a terrible religion. Changes are happening even now, as representatives from all over the world congregated at the UN last month, all paying homage to a principle. In the near future, perhaps what is most needed, what is bound to happen, is a monumental shift in cultural thinking - not unlike that which accompanied the industrial revolution - that will become foundational for our transformed relationship with the planet. 

Eric Irons can be contacted at eirons820@gmail.com

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