Satisfaction and Smiles in an Unequal World

Sam Pizzigati

If President Obama played basketball with the king of Bhutan, would the world have a better shot at becoming a happier place?

What makes us happy? A simple question. In America, we’ve been asking it ever since 1776, the year we declared for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Back in those days, Americans hoping to encourage happiness had little more than guesswork to go by. Today we have help: a new science of happiness, with years of research findings.

John de Graaf, the executive director of the Seattle-based Take Back Your Time and the co-author of What’s the Economy For, Anyway? has done as much as any American to share what this science has to offer. I caught up with de Graaf last week for an exchange on the factors that make for happiness — and how inequality impacts them.

Our conventional global economic wisdom, of course, ignores any possible relationship between happiness and inequality. To make us happier, this standard wisdom assumes, we just need to grow economically. Higher GDPs will bring us higher levels of “life satisfaction” and “subjective well-being.”

In fact, as de Graaf points out, beyond a certain level of Gross Domestic Product — about the current GDP of Portugal — we have no research evidence that countries become happier as they become richer.

“We do have evidence that other factors — reduced stress and greater leisure time, good health and social connections — do contribute to greater happiness,” he adds. “And so does the opportunity to do meaningful work and live in a democratic society that fosters trust and personal safety, with access to education, arts, culture, and nature.”

Which societies in the world today rank highest on factors like these? The world’s most equal nations. These societies discourage the flaunting of wealth and encourage social connectivity. People in them have among the shortest working hours and the best “work-life” balance in the world.

“In the United States,” says de Graaf, “we have about the worst work-life balance among rich countries.”

In our society, nothing signals status and success more than personal wealth, and people labor ever longer hours to grab as much of it as they can. But this chase after fortune undercuts our ability to take the satisfaction that comes from leisure time, purposeful work, and all the other quality-of-life dimensions so critical to happiness.

“When we gain personal wealth at the expense of these dimensions, our personal well-being suffers,” observes de Graaf. “When a whole society pursues personal wealth for the few at the expense of these dimensions for the many, that entire society suffers. That’s what we see in America today.”

We see a good bit more as well.

“Our ever-greater piling on of personal wealth,” de Graaf notes, “is threatening to leave future generations a barren planet.”

Americans are already exhausting the world’s resources and waste sinks more rapidly than they can naturally replenish. If everyone on earth lived the American consumer lifestyle, as the Global Footprint Network details, humanity would need five planets to provide the resources and absorb the wastes.

“We simply cannot grow on like this,” says de Graaf. “We need to find a different approach to well-being for the sake of the future.”

This sort of talk, he acknowledges, scares those Americans who believe that we have no alternative to the status quo if we want “the economy” to thrive.

“These Americans accept the notion that we’re here to serve the economy,” says de Graaf. “But the economy should be serving us.”

In Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation de Graaf recently visited as part of an international advisory group, policy makers have been working to re-orient their economy in this direction. Bhutan has become the first society on earth to make the pursuit of happiness its prime driver of public policy.

Over recent years, de Graaf relates, life expectancy, literacy, and happiness levels have all “increased spectacularly” in Bhutan. The nation ensures all workers a month of annual vacation. Small touches matter for happiness, too. In winter, workdays run from 9 to 4, to keep workers from having to travel to and from work in darkness.

The Bhutanese are now asking the United Nations to explore new progress markers — linked to sustainable well-being and happiness — that can replace traditional GDP measures, and next year, in June, the young king of Bhutan will be traveling to the UN and the United States to help make that case.

Sign up for To MuchWill anybody be listening? De Graaf certainly hopes so — and thinks a little basketball game might help. Turns out that Bhutan’s 33-year-old king plays a mean game of hoops, among the best in his country.

A game on the White House court with the king and President Obama, says de Graaf, just might attract some global media attention.

“Add a few celebrities and NBA stars to the game,” he dreams, “and you could have an international event of great import, an event that could get people talking about measuring ‘equitable and sustainable well-being’ instead of GDP.”

And that would be something to truly get happy about.

Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970, has just been published.

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