Happiness is Real. So Why Do We Pretend It's Not?

Rob McCready/CC BY 2.0

Yesterday I hosted a live chat with Annie Leonard, a master communicator and story teller, and creator of the wildly popular Story of Stuff. Discussing her latest work, The Story of Broke, we came to the topic of happiness.

More Stuff. Less Happiness.
Why is it that even though we are accumulating more and more stuff, we don't seem to be getting happier? In fact, said Annie, the studies show that we are getting less happy. The material things we acquire, and the work we have to do to acquire and maintain them, are becoming more of a burden than a boon to our mental health. The real problem, though, is not just that we are getting less happy—but that we are repeatedly told that our happiness doesn't matter. We are pounded with the message that "happiness" is somehow a foofoo concept, along with clean air and a healthy community. We may even find ourselves discounting our own happiness, thinking of it as a luxury we can ill afford as we work to pay the mortgage, feed the kids, and keep (or find) a job in this struggling economy.

This is no accident. We live in a system where happiness is sold to us as a pope dream. Something we'll get to enjoy in our retirement. (Or in our fancy new car.)

This Is As Good As It Gets
But what about happiness for its own sake? Nice idea, say the detractors, but we have work to do. These are the same people, of course, who argue that a clean energy future is based on "ideology", not "what works"—all the while ignoring the fact that coal and fossil fuels are actively undermining the economy they claim to power. (And they call us pessimists!?)

Redefining Success. Rethinking Progress.
Luckily, there is exciting work going on to redefine the entire concept of economics. From Plenitude Economics to abandoning economic growth, there are many visions of what that might look like. But central to most of them is the idea that happiness matters, that our well-being is the ultimate end goal, and that community, laughter, fun, happiness and a rewarding sense of purpose should be valued more highly than acquiring the latest gadget or expensive status symbol.

Measuring Happiness is Serious Business
There was a time when this would have been heresy in many circles, but the New Economics Foundation (one of the heroes that Annie Leonard called out yesterday) just posted a fascinating piece on how measuring happiness is now a serious business, attracting the attention of such capitalist institutions as Forbes:

This week Forbes asked Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, a non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, what his pick for the year would be. Chris chose the work of Nic Marks and the Centre for Well-being here at nef on National Accounts of Well-being, an idea he thinks can make “powerful, positive and measurable differences in how we create the future”. It may seem somewhat incongruous to find such strong endorsement for more meaningful assessments of societal progress than financial indicators alone can provide publicised on the website of a company whose flagship publication, the Forbes magazine, has been dubbed “The Capitalist Tool”.

Of course happiness by itself is not enough, and material goods are not evil, but learning to actually pay attention to happiness—our own and those around us—is a big part of the puzzle.Next time someone asks you "are you happy", stop and think hard before you answer.

We've all been taught to undervalue our happiness. It's time we took it back.

Tags: Activism | Consumerism | Economics | Living With Less | United Kingdom

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