Getting frank about ED

I want to spend a little time on a sensitive subject. It's a subject that's come to the fore lately, as it affects billions of people, and every country around the world. It's in the media. You may feel its effects in your own home. It's something that people tend to glance over in their everyday lives, even though it's a pervasive issue that some don't feel comfortable talking about.

I'm speaking about Economic Development. Wait, what did you think I was going to talk about?

Economic development is why we all go to work. It's why we go to war (besides those pesky religious ones). It's why we sit at our kitchen tables in the morning, drinking our coffee and muttering "Gah. When will this ever end?" to ourselves. (Just me?) At any rate, it's the pursuit of money to fuel our wants, and settle up on our past wants (=debts) on a personal, family, and national level that keeps us on the cycle of economic development.

But is that it, really? Is that all there is? Make money until you die, and hope that when you die, you do so with some sense of mortal satisfaction?

In this morning's news was a piece about deconstructing Economic Development as it pertains to happiness*. Boiled down, the study suggests that happiness may not be completely dependent on earnings (apparently it's not just love that money can't buy me), and that happiness is being used to gauge our health, just as our blood pressure can be used as a barometer of personal wellness.

Countries are judged on their "wellness" by their ability to make money. Natural resources are depleted, children are enslaved, towns and villages abandoned in favour of the pursuit of economic ventures. The reality is that there is a tradeoff between being seen as better off in the eyes of the global economy and the overall wellness of a country, a nation, or a culture. Several alternatives to the globally accepted measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, similar to the popularized Gross National Product, or GNP) have emerged, to try and capture not just the money we make as a yardstick of progress, but to incorporate a more holistic view of total development, including measures for discounting our level of progress as we degrade the environment for economic growth. Another example is the concept of Gross National Happiness (more on that here and here) tries to shed dependence on economic success as the ultimate goal in life.

When you think about it, people really just want to be happy, right? Of course, if your vision of happiness is rooted in capitalism, of course you'll continue to work for money, which inevitably will feed into the consumption and acquisition loop. The problem with the continued cycle of pursuing economic development through "wealth creation" is that the global economy is interconnected; your personal money-driven "happiness" or growth may be dependent on the devaluing of somebody else's "happiness", despite the fact that they may also benefit economically from being plugged in to the same economic network. It's difficult to draw the boundaries around who is affected by your happiness. If we were all solely responsible for our own happiness, how would things be different? How would we pursue our happiness goals if those external impacts were internalized, if they actually devalued our sense of accomplishment?

Let's get back to alternative theories.

If you were to decided that there was another road, or another way to be happy without relying on the size of your paycheck, would you make your life different? Would you choose the job that made you happy, rather than the one that made you the most money? Ultimately that is our goal: Achieve and maintain personal satisfaction (I'm not going to debate or judge people's view of personal satisfaction -- that is far better debated internally amongst ourselves), maximize our personal benefit for the short time we're on the planet.

I was fortunate to meet the author of the new book, The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth at a conference recently, and was surprisingly pleased with his discussion of the limits of economic growth as a benchmark for personal happiness. He showed in a presentation that some of the happiest (so say they) countries on the earth make far less per capita than the western or North American average. The simple take home message is, you can see this coming, that happiness and wealth creation are not 100% related. As a bit of a pragmatist, I'll be the first to come down hard on people who criticize the system without offering up solutions, and I'm not saying that Anielski doesn't do that (he does, but more on a personal level, which is probably the best way to go if you consider chances of success in overhauling the global economy), but for some reason, in his talk, it didn't matter. Listening to someone speak about the value they get from personal happiness -- Genuine Wealth -- can be uplifting, even inspiring.

I don't want to go on and on about this (even for the one or two people that are still reading). The points have been made over and over again in forums inside and outside the realm of economics. We all see stories in the news about people who have unplugged from the system, gone back to the land, severed their ties and dropped out of the rat race. They're usually "happier" for all their choices, and sometimes they're held up as revolutionary idealists. Sometimes they're stigmatized as hippies and recluses (Sometimes that's what they really are.). It may not be a realistic choice for everyone, but we can't deny the truth in the phrase, "whatever makes you happy", just as we can't deny the jealousy felt for those who seem to be living happier lives than ourselves.

So think about your own happiness. How much of it is dependent on your existing or future financial situation? How often are you made happy by things independent of the global economy (parents, chime in here!). How often are you making decisions that may be "economically" questionable because they support your personal pursuit of happiness? Where are you in your road to happiness? What changes could you make that would help you on your way?

*I'll link to this as soon as I can find a reference. 

Posted bythemikestand at 10:10 AM  

6 stepped up to the mike:

SRH said... 10:32 AM, September 20, 2007  

hmmmm... i shall have to ponder, and ponder I shall. You raise interesting points.

Brianna said... 3:51 PM, September 20, 2007  

personally I've made a number of choices jobwise to keep myself happy even if i'm not making the most money. I've chosen a small hip software company over a big consulting firm because today I took an hour out to play settlers of catan over lunch -- I think that's worth $20,000/year but I also have the luxury of being in an industry where I make enough to pay my bills, even at the nice company.

In junior high I once had a teacher who said that everything anyone does is in an effort to be happy. That statement has really stuck with me and I've rarely found a situation where it can't be applied.

Karen said... 10:33 AM, September 21, 2007  

There's no doubt that in our economy, having "enough" (and what's "enough" of course varies individually) money can make things easier.

At the same time, isn't happiness, or at least satisfaction, a choice? That is, one can choose to be satisfied under a lot of circumstances. Living mindfully and in the present (not that I have any keys to this) are ways to achieve this.

I am told that being conscious of one's life choices and then moving fully into those choices once made is a way to find satisfaction. It's an issue I am struggling with presently, though, since my idealism sees possibilities and potentials that aren't actualized yet, thus creating a disparity between what I want (or think I want) and what I have.

Fascinating topic; thanks for the exploration!

Candy said... 10:45 AM, September 21, 2007  

Jeez, Mike, we went from Pirate Talking Day to this? That's some leap, my brain hurts.

I have been, over the last 7 years, pursuing a dream to get my bachelor's degree and become a teacher. I've wanted to do it forever, and we were in the right position to do so, so I started going to college part-time.

I'm 45 credits away from graduating. I quit this September because our economy has become so impossible that if I don't work full-time we can't eat. So no. I'm not really very happy about my economic choices at the moment. But my kids like milk. So I'm making due.

I wish it was all about what makes you happy, and fulfilled. And I envy those who can make those kinds of choices. Sometimes, though, there really is no choice.

chRistine said... 9:26 AM, September 22, 2007  

I agree with Brianna, and have followed a similar path where I have made choices to make less money but to have more job satisfaction. I like hour long lunches and feeling like I've accomplished something.

And I also hear what Cindy is saying, about sometimes that just not being economically feasible. To combat that, we purposefully bought a house that was "beneath" us.. no garage, not a lot of square footage, not as fancy as our neighbours.. because we wanted something that we could afford even if I didn't work. The flip side is that sometimes we feel crowded, but it is nice knowing my salary (or no salary) goes for our personal enjoyment.

And I think happiness comes from giving back and feeling like you've contributed to this big spinning thing we all live on. Volunteering and humantarian trips increase my satisfaction at being alive. Feeling like I am living out a purpose that is greater than keeping a nice lawn helps me to feel happy.

Shannon said... 11:43 PM, October 13, 2007  

I have been very fortunate in this respect. Sometimes, I find it frightening how much so. I had a career that I liked fairly well and would have liked much better if it weren't for the politics and the commute. Then we had children. I continued to work with my first child from the time she was 8 mos. until she was about 18 mos., then worked from home as I was on bedrest. I had been telecommuting part of the week instead of going into the office anyway. While I had enjoyed my job well enough, I struggled the whole time with being away from her. I thought daily about going out on my own, but just couldn't let go of the "security." After my second child was born, my company sent down the word that I was to spend more time at the office. I never went back. I haven't regretted it for a minute. My husband and I are now both self employed. We don't make that much but we don't work that much either, at least not so far. Since I just basically walked out on my career mid-stream (that one anyway), I've gone organic, am trying to reduce my carbon footprint (somewhat, anyway), thrown out all the chemicals in my house including commercial shampoo and soap, started using cloth diapers, and have been looking rather longingly at farms. There've been too many changes to count. And, I must say, I couldn't be happier. I don't know how long it will last, but I'm sure enjoying the heck out of it now. And I know I could still be very happy with a lot less than we have now, so long as I wasn't required to dance to someone else's fiddle again. I remain quite hopeful that such a future will be possible for me.

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