Wednesday, March 20, 2013

If you're happy and you know it clap one hand

Rose Tint (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

Today is officially designated The International Day of Happiness. Did you know? Neither did I until this morning. The UN is fond of springing behavioural directives upon us.  For once I am able to comply without even lifting a weary finger. I am happy. It requires no effort on my part. The mere fact that there is a double door between yours truly and the cause of most unhappiness here at Seat of Pants, (other people - I am firmly in the Sartre camp on this one), ensures positive delirium.

Happiness clearly means different things to different people. For me, it's silence, stillness and solitude (and a nice glass of Chardonnay - or a mediocre one, for that matter). There are people for whom that would be a version of purgatory and whose happiness can only be secured by the presence of a large cast all talking at once, several slobbering pooches and the imminence of a shopping trip. Vive la différence.

According to the UN,

'The day recognizes (sic)* that happiness is a fundamental human goal, and calls upon countries to approach public policies in ways that improve the well being (sic) of all peoples. By designating a special day for happiness, the UN aims to focus world attention on the idea that economic growth must be inclusive, equitable, and balanced, such that it promotes sustainable development, and alleviates poverty. Additionally the UN acknowledges that in order to attain global happiness, economic development must be accompanied by social and environmental well being (sic).'

This idea, crudely put in the statement above, has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, the UN's attempt to simplify it has stripped the concept of meaning. Broadly, the premise is that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNP (Gross National Product), the measures used by nations to gauge prosperity, are not fair indicators of how the commonweal is faring because they only represent one side of the balance sheet. The hint is in the 'gross'. These measures don't take into account the negative impacts of productivity. For example, here in Australia, our resources wealth has protected all of us from the recession that most developed nations have been experiencing for the last five years. But, the aggressive and ruthless practices of powerful prospectors have divided and, in some cases destroyed, communities where mining happens. The human and environmental costs are not counted. Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton has written eloquently on this, notably in his 2003 book, Growth Fetish.

Reading on we discover that,

'The initiative to declare a day of happiness came from Bhutan – a country whose citizens are considered to be some of the happiest people in the world. The Himalayan Kingdom has championed an alternative measure of national and societal prosperity, called the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). The GNH rejects the sole use of economic and material wealth as an indicator of development, and instead adopts a more holistic outlook, where spiritual well being (sic + sic)** of citizens and communities is given as much importance as their material well being.' (sic + sic again)***

Bhutan has come to own the idea of 'happiness' as a measure of net well-being. I'd point out that the UK-based New Economics Foundation has been championing a similar concept for a decade or more. And yes, Bhutan consistently appears right up there in polls for the world's 'happiest' people. That couldn't possibly be because the country expelled all of its Nepalese dissidents in the early 1990s now could it? Getting rid of people with opposing viewpoints might make some happy but I don't want to live in a society with no capacity for debate. Sadly, even the NEF has fallen prey to a populist take on net planetary well-being, using the blunt instrument of a crude ecological-footprint calculator to determine community contentedness.

Happiness is such a subjective thing. Australians are not a particularly happy bunch. We worry about everything, not least of all things that probably will never happen. It seems the more secure we are in our GDP/GNP outlook, the more anxiety we have about it all going to hell in a handcart. We are isolated and almost impossible to get to, yet the thing we fear the most is being invaded by small groups of unarmed people landing on our most distant outposts. We are only 22-and-a-bit million people occupying a vast land mass abundant in every resource needed for human thriving, yet we are consumed with the fear of not having enough - of anything and everything.

Being rich doesn't make you happy. Just ask our favourite billion-heiress Gina Rinehart, who's currently at war with her own children. If a prime example of too much never being enough were needed, surely this is it. Wealth and the relentless pursuit of it can have a corrosive effect on the soul. I wouldn't mind seeing a Gross National Happiness calculation for the damage done there. Australian community well-being is being choked by big gobbly fish wanting to eat everything in their path. We fear the oceanic Great White Shark above all other predators. Few of us will ever be bitten by one of these. It's the land-based great whites that are more likely to want to snack on us - and they won't just be wanting a leg.

Ask anyone in Australia how they feel right now about the future and you'll be guaranteed to get a sour answer, no matter how solid their own financial position may be. The political instability and its incomprehensible pointlessness has everyone rattled. There's only one thing worse than a political crisis and that's a phoney political crisis. How does a populace respond to a parliamentary system that's descended into chaos when our fiscal outlook couldn't be brighter?

The only possible answer is to wipe off that (completely bogus) gloomy (fiscal) outlook and put on a happy face (emoticon optional). If you really want to get into the spirit, you can make a pledge to 'try to create more happiness in the world around [you]'. Nearly 20,000 of the seven billion available of us have undertaken this wholesome activity so far today. That's some reach, huh! Clearly this sort of effort is much more meaningful than, say, refusing to buy clothing that is made by enslaved children or refraining from filling your fridge full of food that you will later throw in the bin or ... you get the drift.

'Here's a little song I (didn't) wrote. You might want to sing it note for note. Don't worry. Be happy ... '

*Crusty old pedant here - it really isn't possible for a 'day' to 'recognize' anything as it is not animate.
** Sorry, but this is the UN's official website. There are also punctuation errors that I haven't bothered with.
*** Ditto.