Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sustainable Happiness

"But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?" -Albert Camus

Dan Baker, a clinical psychologist whose practice draws on positive psychology and the science of happiness, writes that the greatest barrier to individual happiness is fear (Baker and Stauth, 2003). From thirty years of therapeutic experience he has drawn the following conclusion: All of our individual fears can be grouped into three basic fears: 1) Survival; 2) Fear of not having enough, and; 3) Fear of not being enough. As long as we are operating out of fear, rather than love, we will consistently pursue happiness in ways that are destructive for ourselves and others.

We can readily see that a great deal of unsustainable behavior may be governed by fears of ‘not having enough’ or ‘not being enough’. Materialism is a shelter for hiding from these fears. Some people are convinced that their jobs and possessions are actually a matter of survival, stressing themselves with a ‘life or death’ need to hold onto them – even when their material wealth is well beyond their basic needs.

“The most important message that the science of happiness tells us about money is, almost nobody thinks they have enough. In the dark recesses of our brains, free-floating fear tells us that we need more, more, more – or our very survival will be threatened” (Bakerand Stauth 2003, p.45). The dark recesses of the brain that Baker refers to are the brain stem (reptilian brain) and amygdala where fear is triggered and resides, often unconsciously. Love, compassion, and happiness are experienced in the part of the brain that developed later in our evolution, the neo-cortex. “In every one of us there is a delicate and shifting balance between the power of the reptilian brain and the power of the neo-cortex; I call this oscillating balance the dance of the spirit and the reptile” (Baker and Stauth 2003, p.45).

Baker claims that the spirit must lead this dance because the spirit is the key to happiness. Learning how to live more from our hearts, to let the spirit lead, and to understand our mutual interdependence is integral to sustainable happiness. But how does this notion of ‘sustainable happiness’ translate to community development?

In my view our efforts to create and develop sustainable communities, sustainable cities and sustainable societies will make little significant headway until we mature towards this understanding of happiness. At heart, every one of us longs to experience sustained happiness. “Happiness is a shared desire of every human being. It is possibly the ultimate thing we want while other things are wanted only as a means to its increase” (Thinley, 1998).

I recently wrote a paper which supported the contention that the concept of “happiness” is indeed relevant, if not fundamental, to sustainable community development. Finding the topic extremely captivating I’ve decided to cut-down my paper and make it far more ‘reader friendly’ for those who may be interested. Enjoy!

What is “Happiness”?
Seligman (2004) described “happiness” as a mental state of well-being characterized by positive emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.

First coined by Aristotle in Etica Nicomahica, happiness in its earliest sense was used to translate the Greek Eudaimonia (ENVIS 2009) which drew upon the beliefs of early philosophers and religious thinkers who often defined happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. This was later elaborated upon by Russell (1930, p.2) who argued that happiness was “a relative sense of joy that varied from one culture to another and also from one individual to another”.

Today a variety of biological, psychological, religious, and philosophical approaches continue to strive to define happiness and identify its sources.

Happiness in the Context of Development Policy and Practice
Across the globe countries have attempted to integrate happiness into their laws and development policies, or incorporate the pursuit of happiness a part of the national psyche. Perhaps the best recognized example of this is the United States of America, whose Constitution embeds inalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Leaming (2006) argues that this pursuit of happiness is inexorably linked with consumption, with the accumulation of material possessions and capitalism at all costs. Research indicates that the social conditioning that we are exposed to in industrialized countries predisposes us to seek happiness outside of ourselves, most often through consumption (O’Brien 2006).

However, as highlighted by Brinklaan (2004, p.3)“the materialism and competition that characterizes the dominant civilization in the world today have not been conducive to the pursuit of happiness, and, in many respects, actually has led in the opposite direction”.

Gross National Product (GNP), the monetary value of national economic activity, which has become the theoretical and de facto measure of national economic and developmental policies, reflects this dominant paradigm (Leaming 2006).

Reinforcing Brinklaan’s (2004) observation, Hirata (2009) argues that in spite of a multifold increase of GNP in many nations, even the wealthiest societies are still plagued by grave social problems like unemployment, child poverty, stress etc. Demonstrating this, over the past fifty years, while GNP in the US has been growing (tripling in fact), measures of subjective well-being, and life satisfactions have remained flat (O’Brien 2006).

Studies show that once we have met our basic needs, increased wealth does not contribute significantly to our well-being, calling attention to the fact that economic indicators of well-being are not sufficiently comprehensive to tell us how we are doing as a society (O’Brien 2006). Over a decade ago, the UN Development Program called for an end to what it described as “the mis-measurement of progress by economic growth alone”, recognizing that a new and ‘more legitimate’ development paradigm must be “people centered, equitably distributed and environmentally and socially sustainable” (Salvaris 2007 p.11).

In line with this, a recent, radical paradigm shift in development economics and social theory is the notion of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

For almost three decades the Government of Bhutan has given primacy to GNH over GNP. While conventional development models stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, the concept of GNH is based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other (Hirata 2009).

Hargens (2007) argues that GNH can also be regarded as the next evolution in indicators for sustainable development, going beyond measuring merely material values such as production and consumption, but instead incorporating all values relevant to life on this planet, including the most subtle and profound: happiness.

In the Bhutan, happiness is not simply sensory pleasure, derived from physical comfort; rather, happiness is an innate state of mind which can be cultivated through spiritual practice, overcoming mental and emotional states which induce suffering. In the Buddhist tradition this is a path of ‘liberation’; other spiritual traditions call it self-transformation (Hirata 2009).

This definition of happiness correlates to recent findings in the area of positive psychology which indicate that authentic happiness, the enduring happiness that causes us to feel satisfied with our lives, is found through less materialistic pursuits (O’Brien, 2005). “It is grounded in intrinsic values. It is found in our relationships, meaningful work, and a sense of purpose” (O’Brien 2005, p.12).

GNH as a development model aims to create an environment within which every citizen will have a fair chance of finding happiness through a reasonable degree of effort (Hirata 2009). There are four strategies, or four pillars on which the edifice of happiness is to be erected:
Preservation and promotion of cultural values;
Conservation of the natural environment;
Establishment of good governance; and
Promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development.
Going beyond national development policy, these pillars also provide a skeleton for community development planners.

Developing Sustainable Communities
With a still-growing human population, rapidly increasing consumption and ever-increasing stresses on the environment, one of the greatest challenges confronting humanity in the 21st century is sustainability (Matson 2009). It is imperative for community development initiatives to take this challenge into consideration when undertaking the planning process (Hardin 1968, Fricker 2004).

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987, p.1) defines sustainable development as “...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, with today’s consumer-driven society, many of us are locked into a system that compels us to increase our consumption (of material goods, food and land) without limit—in a world that is limited (Hardin 1968).

Diener and Seligman (2004), argue that unless our individual understanding of happiness matures to include less materialistic, individualistic views of happiness, we will continue to create communities and cities that are unsustainable.

In urban planning this means examining how we are responding to and compounding the faulty assumptions about individual happiness which are not aligned with sustainability (Hirata 2009). Therefore, as highlighted by O’Brien (2005 p.8) “as we play with new possibilities around happiness, community development and planning, my recommendation is to consider how we might plan for sustainable happiness.”

Sustainable “Development Happiness”
O’Brien (2005) defines “sustainable happiness” as the pursuit of happiness that does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.

Bringing sustainability and happiness together within the concept of sustainable happiness holds significant possibilities for individual, community, and global well-being. Tideman, (1977) for example queries how might cities and towns look if we adopted the notion of Gross National Happiness in our urban planning - perhaps even going so far as to honor the sacredness of individuals and nature?

Interesting examples of sustainable happiness initiatives within community development can be seen in the transport, lifestyle and healthcare sectors.

“Cities face massive population growth, particularly in the developing world. By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population, or 5 billion people, will live in cities. The transportation sector currently accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, a growing proportion derived largely from cars and trucks”(Gerhl Architects 2010).

Without a significant move away from car-dependent suburbanization to pedestrian-friendly and public transit-oriented urban planning, cities will face growing difficulties financing the necessary infrastructure. Creating efficient transport systems is important and something that many commuters appreciate, “shaving five or ten minutes off a jam packed schedule can be a real priority for some” (O’Brien 2005, p.9).

Demonstrating remarkable leadership in the direction of sustainable happiness in the transportation sector, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia initiated the first car-free day in the city. During his tenure he created urban infrastructure and public space that gave priority to children and to those who don’t own an automobile (O’Brien 2005). His motivation; happiness:
“We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. All our everyday efforts have one objective: HAPPINESS” (conversation with Penalosa in Ives, 2002).

It is well documented that our preoccupation with motorized transport has come at the expense of the most vulnerable sectors of society, the environment, and future generations (Gerhl Architects 2010).

While it is widely recognized that urban planning and public health are interrelated, the significance of happiness for our health and well-being is only just starting to make its way into community planning literature (O’Brien 2006). There is evidence that genuinely happy people live longer, recover from illness more quickly, and are more likely to seek out and act on health information.

In a recent article on Place Makers titled Can Cities Help You Forget Your Troubles, C’mon Get Happy?, writer Hazel Borys illustrates some of the trends in tackling the gap in measuring societal impacts. She highlights how Vancouver’s ‘Healing Cities’ project is using bio-mimicry to explore how they can design places that help the human body rebuild, repair and regenerate.

The recognition that public health and city planning are interdependent means that as our understanding of health expands to include happiness we are challenged to consider its convergence with planning (O’Brien 2006).

Historically development and progress was primarily seen in terms of economic growth underlying which was a development philosophy based on the cultivation of a narrow materialist self-interest and competitiveness, both at the level of the individual and at the level of the nation-state.

Despite voluminous evidence that this growth fixated model of material economy polarizes global well-being and seriously undermines environmental security, most, in the developed world at least, seem perfectly content to continue achieving happiness in irresponsible ways.

No development policy or community development program will be effective that tries to separate the economic aspect of life from the cultural and spiritual aspects, as do the capitalist and socialist models of development with their sole emphasis on the production of goods and their neglect of the full range of human well-being. “For (an individual’s) wellbeing, the needs of the whole person must be met, needs that include satisfying work, harmonious relationships, a safe and beautiful environment, and a life of the mind and spirit, as well as food, clothing, and shelter” (Hargens, S 2007).

This brings us back full circle to the question of planning for sustainable happiness. In efforts to support the widespread demand for speed and efficiency, planners may become caught up in responding to an unsustainable view of happiness from individuals and the general public (O’Brien 2005).

The perception of “happiness” will vary across cultures and societies generally, but it is clear that development without an appropriate “happiness factor” to that built into both the processes and objectives is somewhat doomed if not insofar as specific outcomes then in failing to realize all potential benefits.

This paper has explored the deeper dynamics of an economic ideology of which GNP is only the most visible aspect and asks whether Bhutan’s search for an alternative approach really entails the search for a more responsible form of happiness – one that inherently involves a more compassionate mode of being in the world.

Perhaps O’Brien (2005 p.2) best sums it up in saying that “It may well be the case that if we can begin to understand, individually and collectively, how to pursue sustainable happiness, then every other sustainability issue would be addressed.”

No comments:

Post a Comment