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Happiness For Everyone

20 Jul 2020 |  Ginny Sassaman

Our Moral Obligation to Change the Economic Paradigm

"When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and you can't eat money" ~ Alanis Obomsawin

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My family was big into board games when I was growing up. A particular favorite was The Game of Life. After spinning the wheel of fortune, you got to steer a tiny car driven by your itsy-bitsy peg person over actual bridges next to 3D buildings. It was thrilling to go to college, earn a degree, get married, and gather pink and blue children to fill the family sedan.

And who won the game? The player with the most money and material well-being. Not the one who had the most satisfying career, or gave generously in community service, or who had a car full of family members. Nope. It was all about financial assets. That's how you win at life!

Amazing to think back on it now. How well-trained we were to measure what matters based on never ending growth and consumption! But life isn't actually a game with inflexible rules. We can make other choices. Indeed, it is a moral obligation for us to do better-for ourselves and others, including future generations-so we can all be genuinely and collectively happier.

Game Of Life

That's what Greenpeace President Annie Leonard urges us to do. Before assuming her current role, she made provocative animated videos, like The Story of Solutions, which suggests we can move toward a happy, sustainable planet by redefining what winning looks like. Currently, our cultural end goal is more - more money, bigger yachts, shinier toys, more prisons, more polluting smokestacks, more, more, more. Instead, Leonard suggests, we need "simply" to change the goal of our collective lives to better.

Though I hardly think it will be "simple" to switch from more to better, Leonard's solution is brilliant. First, she neatly illustrates that "more" does not equal quality of life at all. The GDP barometer merely measures how much money changed hands. It is completely amoral. That money could be - and mostly is - within the hands of a tiny fraction of humanity.

It can include the costs of new solar panels, it's true, but it also includes money for new fossil fuel infrastructure. It does not include much that gladdens the human heart, such as our spiritual practices, trees, or grandbaby hugs. Despite the fact that the GDP was never meant to measure more than the exchange of goods and services, it's become the primary barometer for our collective well-being. It is high time we created a better barometer!

Second, Leonard provides a positive, common sense alternative. She never actually uses the words 'Gross National Happiness', but she prescribes a new, inclusive, holistic way of measuring and encouraging a life well lived by actively reframing what success looks like.

Finally, I find Leonard's solution brilliant because it is based on the very human hunger for accomplishment. Winning the game. This hunger can lead those who might push a little too fervently to overachieve. Taken too far, this drive might even manifest as greed. This is important, because some think that greed is at the heart of many societal ills and, certainly, the pursuit of an illusory infinitely growing economy.


But what if greed could be channeled as a social good? The work of Martin Seligman makes me believe this is possible. In his book Flourish, Seligman - the father of positive psychology and former head of the American Psychological Association - used the acronym P.E.R.M.A. to describe the five key elements of well-being:

The P stands for experiencing positive emotions, E for engagement using one's strengths, R for positive relationships, M for meaning, and A for accomplishment. I find this grid helpful for understanding what motivates both individuals and societies.

Of the five happiness needs, it's the A, accomplishment, that is most unexpected and intriguing. While all of the measures can be used for darkness or light, accomplishment seems especially prone to amorality. Though it can mean inventing a life-saving vaccine, it can also mean razing the rain forest to build a golf resort.

Yet, the desire for accomplishment is a life force we can harness. Both The Story of Solutions and the Gross National Happiness movement take the aikido approach and work with, not against, human nature. Nobody's talking about utopia. We're envisioning better approaches that can be taken by real humans, with all their complex wiring, including the accomplishment drive which sometimes ramps up to all-out greed.

By changing the end goal-what we want to achieve-to better, we can encourage everyone, including Type A overachievers and those in the grips of greed, to focus those desires directly on happiness rather than on the stepping stones of stuff and money.

The Best Things In Life Aren 't Things (small Square)  Af H - Shift From Economic Growth To Growth In Wellbeing (small)

One way to do that is to change what we measure.

As we wind our way through life, both personally and systemically, we use measurements to gauge how we're doing. It matters very much what we choose to measure, because that's where we focus our limited time and energy. Believe me, in that Life board game, which I always wanted to win, I paid careful attention to accruing financial assets.

In real life, you can measure the cash in your retirement accounts, your blood pressure, and/or how much fossil fuel you're burning - depending on your own narrative - and that data will guide your choices, to an extent at least, consciously or subconsciously. Yet, each data point represents a small fraction of your overall, complex story.

To adequately assess your progress through life, you need a comprehensive, thoughtful set of measures. Perhaps you'd like to note how many friends you have dinner with regularly? Or the number of volunteer hours you put in? Maybe the mountains you've climbed? Or languages you speak?

One of my measurement tools is a pedometer. I'm one of those "10,000 steps a day" people. The steps are good, but the pedometer doesn't record whether I've taken the calcium I need for my osteoporosis, done my daily back exercises, meditated, had too much wine or eaten too much chocolate. It doesn't measure if I've gotten enough sleep, hugged anybody, or savored the sunset.

So I have created my own scale-charts I fill in to note whether or not I've practiced gratitude, drank enough water, been nice to at least one person, and … gotten in my 10,000 steps.

Measuring GDP is kind of like the pedometer gone haywire, measuring one thing and one thing only. Yet, there it is, regularly and enthusiastically cited in respected news sources: the GDP is up, or down. As if that alone tells us whether we're happy and whether we're well.

Blue Line

"Happiness is neither a frivolity nor a luxury. It is a deep-seated yearning shared by all members of the human family. It should be denied to no-one and available to all." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Ginny Preaching Happiness Book

About The Author

Ginny Sassaman, M.S., C.I.P.P. is a happiness advocate, lay preacher and author of a new book Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World


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