Sunday, February 3, 2008

Gross National Happiness

I've been pondering the meaning of wealth and value. In my opinion there is a direct correlation between how you define the words and how happy you feel. I find it troubling that in our culture it is far more acceptable to talk with others about being miserable than it is to admit to contentment or happiness. People will look at you askance if you admit to happiness, as if doing so is profane.

When asked where I live, my response, Youngstown, is often met with a question. It isn't always asked point blank, often it is the raised brow and questioning eyes that ask the question, "How can you be happy living in inner city Youngstown, with its crime, and poverty, not to mention abandoned houses?" When I respond, "Because there is beauty, community, creativity, and challenge here," their doubt is palpable. Yet, I believe it to be true.

I am not blind to the problems or the blight, nor do I want to discount the very real misery caused by the true deprivation of some of our citizens. As Channing Pollack stated, "Happiness is a way station between too much and too little." It is merely, that I believe that beauty and blight can co-exist and where there is action taken to create beauty from blight, there is hope, and where there is hope, there is purpose and meaning and ultimately happiness.

In the U.S. we have fallen prey to what I call happiness propaganda. The pervasive idea, perpetuated by the media, that unless one is engaged in the activity of consumerism, one can't possibly be happy. It goes without saying that in order to be a consumer one must have economic wealth.That requires that the consumer spend an inordinate amount of time accumulating that economic wealth. (i.e. usually doing something they despise for eight hours or more a day). In the United States the word wealth has generally come to mean economic value. However, the word "wealth" actually derives from the English word "weal" which means well-being or welfare. We are very confused here in the United States. As Eduardo Galeano stated, "we confuse being with having". We seldom question the value of our consumption. (Value defined as principals, or standards of human actions; not value defined as estimated worth.) David Wann, in his book, Simple Prosperity, Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, states, "While we frantically climb the peak toward economic milestones that are always still further up the trail, less time and care are given to things that really matter, family, friends, personal health, environmental vitality, community and cultural traditions."

As of late, there have been numerous studies and books published about happiness. In virtually all of the studies, happiness is found not in consumerism, but in community, creativity and self expression. Happiness is found when one has a sense that life has meaning and purpose. Youngstown provides all of these if you're looking. There is tremendous community here and plenty of opportunity to engage in creativity. Together we are creating a new city. Here we are urban pioneers. Granted we have our problems, but working in collaboration with one another, and using some elbow grease, we can solve those problems. We can in fact, turn our problems into opportunity.

Particularly now, in this time of environmental crisis we need a new definition of happiness, from one of consumption and owning things, to one of simple pleasures, creative freedom, and deep connections. Al Gore has said, "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."

In the recently released book, The Geography of Bliss, written by Eric Weiner, the author travels the world over seeking the most contented places. I was intrigued by the philosophy of Bhutan. There, rather than the measuring Gross Domestic Product they measure Gross National Happiness. Gross National Happiness is their highest priority. I support a movement to make that our national priority.


Janko said...

great post today.

to me the essence of creation, especially from the perspective of creating a city, is very spiritual.

I don't think this is a god-like creation complex manifesting itself, rather its the realization that spiritualness (however one attains it) makes me happy.

So when people now ask, "why do you do the things you do in Youngstown?" my answers more and more have a component of "because, it makes me happy".

I think in years past I may have felt guilty providing a response like that, but that feeling is slowly ebbing away.

Lucy said...

Today, my husband and I helped our daughter prepare a homework assignment titled "Where Am I From?" We proudly helped her write that all four of her grandfathers worked in the steel mills that built Youngstown.

I love this post, especially the part about the American consumerist trap. It's true that some people find me strange because I'm happy driving a nine-year-old car (it's paid off) and living in a modest home.

Great blog! I'm glad I found it.

Blogs from the Midwest said...


I have been reading your blog - interesting and thoughtful commentary. I am also gratified to find a fellow lawyer/treehugger.