Rethinking material relations: Happiness, wellbeing, and alternative indicators

Haidy Geismar, UCL and NYU

In 2006, the New Economics Foundation (nef) published the Happy Planet Index, a quantification of the “happiness quotients” of the world’s nations which considered life expectancy, the experience of wellbeing and, most importantly, ecological footprint as indicators of happiness,  displacing the usual measure of happiness: GNP or ability to consume endlessly. Surprisingly (or not) the UK, US and Australia were placed amongst the unhappiest nations of the world, Vanuatu the small Melanesian country where I have done research over the past 12 years, came top. By the second edition, Vanuatu was no longer top (due to data collection problems rather than unhappiness) but a widespread move to devise alternative indicators of wellbeing and to institutionalize them was well underway.

The development of alternative indicators has increasingly reformulated consumption and emphasised not only environmental wellbeing as the basis of human wellbeing but has linked economic activity towards the continuation of meaningful cultural practices.  The material basis of contentment and happiness has increasingly been detached from commodity consumption, and embedded within (a much more anthropological understanding) of consumption as part of broader structures of meaningful and generative social interaction. It is this kind of push that allowed the Bolivians to award the natural environment the same rights as people (in terms of global human rights regimes) through the Law of Mother Earth and a similar move has been made to in Aotearoa New Zealand to recognize the rights of the Whanganui River.

This month, Vanuatu’s National Statistics Office released their official Well Being Survey, drawn from a two year research project to devise alternative measures of wellbeing, satisfaction and avenues for development. This is part of a global move to develop alternative indicators of societal wellbeing, as well as a very local initiative to think through issues of futuricity, development and the role that individual people and communities can play in determining their own welfare and wellbeing. This is all noted by Alicta Vuti, a representative of the Malvatumauri (the National Council of Chiefs) in his welcoming statement:

In July 2011, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 65/309 titled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development”. The resolution states that happiness is a fundamental human goal and universal aspiration; that GDP by its nature does not reflect that goal; that unsustainable patterns of production and consumption impede sustainable development; and that a more inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach is needed to promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance well-being and happiness.

In August 2011, the Conference on Happiness and Economic Development was organized by the Kingdom of Bhutan, hosted by Honorable Prime Minister Thinley and Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs from Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This resulted in the World Happiness Report presented in April of this year, 2012, at the first ever UN High Level Meeting on Well- being and Happiness in New York City. The report provides empirical evidence that happiness—as well as being a fundamental human goal—also contributes to greater productivity, better health, faster recovery from adversity, less risky lifestyle choices and more pro-social behavior. It adds up to a convincing argument for changing the governance agenda from one that focuses primarily on economic growth to one that takes all domains of well-being into consideration.

The Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs has completed a pilot study on well-being which measures happiness and considers variables that reflect Melanesian values. The three unique domains of well-being explored in the study—resource access, cultural practice, and community vitality—are intended to modify the existing progressive measures accepted internationally by governments and aid agencies in order to better track the factors that contribute to, specifically, ni-Vanuatu well-being.

The report can be downloaded here

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