Happiness requires opportunity, says a new study by the Brookings Institution, not just contentment. The study looks at different kinds of well-being and notes how international context and varying levels of poverty color the type of happiness people seek. The poorest who live in places without opportunity find contentment where they can, in a daily, utilitarian sense. Those with opportunity, on the other hand, find a different kind of happiness in their ability to lead a purposeful, meaningful life. Carol Graham, co-author of the study, writes that poverty in the US is particularly stressful, and that many Americans find it hard to pursue purposeful lives. Inequality and a lack of social mobility make the "pursuit of happiness" and the "American dream" a mirage.
There is a correlation between happiness and money, of course, but it's more complicated than that. It is well-known that GDP, which measures a nation's wealth, does not correlate to other measurements of well-being, such as health, education, or opportunity. After a flurry of attempts, notably by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, to define better gauges of well-being than GDP, today it is generally accepted that replacing GDP is not an option. But other metrics can be used in addition to GDP, and the conversation on moving away from focusing on economic growth at all costs, and towards a more holistic view of human and planetary well-being, is on the table.
Several countries, notably Australia, Belgium and the UK, do measure social and environmental indicators in addition to GDP. But the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), which includes mainly wealthy countries as its members, has taken the lead in launching well-being indicators and rankings. The OECD Better Life Index, its How's Life? reports and its Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being all point to the importance of shifting our focus away from GDP and GDP growth in favor of sustainable development.
In October the OECD published a report called How Was Life? that tracks well-being from 1820 to the present. The report showed huge advancement in OECD countries in literacy and life expectancy during the period, even when GDP per capita stagnated. Homicide rates and exposure to conflict did not correlate well with GDP per capita. Income inequality declined until about 1970 but has been rising ever since. With notable exceptions, gender inequality has been declining in most regions over the past 60 years, but it too does not correlate to GDP.
In the Better Life Index, the US currently ranks No. 1 in household financial wealth, but is one of the worst performers in terms of social inequality. America was 33rd in terms of homicide rate and 19th in air pollution. In overall life satisfaction, the US was 17th.
On the environment, the How Was Life? report noted that "a negative correlation with GDP per capita is clearly in place when looking at quality of the environment. Biodiversity declined in all regions and worldwide as land use changed dramatically. Per capita emissions of CO2 increased after the industrial revolution... and are still increasing globally."
Moving away from a focus on GDP is imperative in order to face the societal and environmental challenges that loom. If we are aiming for improved well-being we need to consider and address so many other aspects of life on the planet. If we are going to continue growing and developing, we had better do it sustainably.