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Why your happiness matters to the planet

Surveys and research link true happiness to a smaller footprint on the ecology.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 2008

It's not genetics that makes Danes happy and Russians gloomy, according to the World Values Survey which, for thirty years, has been sending out questionnaires to people in 95 countries to ''know how others experience the world''.

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Overall, people around the world have grown happier during the past 25 years, according to the most recent World Values Survey (WVS), a periodic assessment of happiness in 97 nations. On average, people describing themselves as “very happy” have increased by nearly 7 percent.

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The findings seem to contradict the view, held by some, that national happiness levels are more or less fixed.

The report’s authors attribute rising world happiness to improved economies, greater democratization, and increased social tolerance in many nations. Along with material stability, freedom to live as one pleases is a major factor in subjective well-being, they say.

But the survey, based at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, also underscore that, beyond a certain point, material wealth doesn’t boost happiness. The United States, which ranked 16th and has the world’s largest economy, has largely stalled in happiness gains – this despite ever more buying power. Americans are now twice as rich as they were in 1950, but no happier, according to the survey.

Other rich countries, the United Kingdom and western Germany among them, show downward happiness trends. For psychologists and environmentalists alike, these observations prompt a profound question. Rich countries consume the lion’s share of world resources.

Overconsumption is a major factor in environmental degradation, global warming chief among them. Could a wrong-headed approach to seeking happiness, then, be exacerbating some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems? And could learning to be truly content help mitigate them?

In the past decade, a cadre of psychologists has directed its attention away from determining what’s wrong with the infirm toward quantifying what’s right with the healthy. They’ve christened this new field “positive psychology,” and what they’re discovering perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising. At the core, humans are social beings. While food and shelter are absolutely essential to well-being, once these basic needs are fulfilled, engagement with other human beings makes people happiest.

For Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the problem in the US is not consumption per se, but that as a society we consume in ways that don’t make us happy. He divides the pursuit of happiness into three categories: seeking positive emotion, or feeling good; engagement with others; and meaning, or participating in something larger than oneself.

People, he notes, are often happiest when helping other people, when engaged in “self-transcendent” activities. What does this mean? Rather than making a gift of the latest iPhone, buy someone dancing lessons, he says. Instead of taking a resort vacation, build a house with Habitat for Humanity.

“The pursuit of engagement and the pursuit of meaning don’t habituate,” he says, whereas trying to feel good is like eating French vanilla ice cream: The first bite is fantastic; the tenth tastes like cardboard.

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