Over the past few years, there has been a growing understanding of this connection. Anincreasing number of reports are underlining the fact that happiness and well-being do notdepend on endless economic growth and material wealth, but rather on contented families, strongcommunities, meaningful work, and personal freedom. There is a dawning understanding thattreating GDP as a useful proxy for well-being can be extraordinarily misleading; and that goodlives – defined as happy and fulfilling ones – don’t have to cost the earth.The recent report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and SocialProgress, set up by President Sarkozy, for example, makes clear that while conventionaleconomic theory assumes that rising consumer expenditure is strongly related to individuals' well being, the reality is often very different; that “traffic jams may increase GDP as a result of theincreased use of gasoline, but obviously not the quality of life. Moreover, if citizens areconcerned about the quality of air, and air population is increasing, then statistical measureswhich ignore air pollution will provide an inaccurate estimate of what is happening to citizens'well-being”.
In this paper, the terms “well-being” and “happiness” are used interchangeably, although there isa growing literature which equates happiness with pleasure, but attributes to well-being a deeper sense of developing as a person, being fulfilled and contributing to society. The British writer and psychologist Oliver James sums this up more succinctly than most: “I regard happiness aschimeric and temporary, akin to pleasure, and I tend to agree with the saying ‘we were not put onthis Earth to be happy’….my focus is on why we are so fucked up, not with dangling a false promise of the possibility of happiness”.
But whether good lives are defined as happy lives or lives of well-being, the bottom line is this:that living a good life and safeguarding our environment are not only compatible, they areinextricably linked and mutually dependent. It serves both our own well-being and the well- being of the planet radically to reform our deeply unsustainable economic system, based on theever increasing consumption and waste of natural resources.
The Growth Dilemma
But what is an economy not based on growth to look like, how will it serve its citizens, and – crucially – how can politicians be persuaded to propose such radical change? MurrayBookchin, the American philosopher, sets out the scale of the challenge in his assertion that“capitalism can no more be “persuaded” to limit growth than a human being can be “persuaded”to give up breathing.”
First, it’s important to distinguish between growth – more of the same “stuff” – and development – the same amount of better stuff. A steady-state system permits more qualitative development, but not more aggregate quantitative growth.
Second, we need to recognize that, after a certain level of satisfaction of basic needs is achieved,much consumption isn’t about need. Material goods also provide a vital language through wecommunicate with each other about the things that really matter: family, identity, friendship,community, purpose in life.According to a groundbreaking work by British authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, thecrucial key to reducing the cultural pressure to consume is through greater equality.
, they set out how greater equality makes growth much less necessary. It is, theyargue, “a precondition for a steady-state economy.” A great deal of what drives consumption isstatus competition, so that inequality ratchets up the competitive pressure to consume. Thiswould explain, for example, why more unequal countries spend a higher proportion of their GDPon advertising, with the US and New Zealand spending twice as much as Norway and Denmark.