The next 20 years will be unrecognisable from the past 20 years (see my post ‘The Shift Is About To Hit The Fan’). Significant societal change is both inevitable and imminent. Yet so much of our film and literature creates a desolate vision of the future – a nightmare rather than a dream. We too often focus on the worst case scenario, on the problems, and use fear as a tool to monopolise people’s attention.

Nightmare, post-apocalyptic vision of future

The future does not need to be bleak. There is another way...

However the future does not need to be bleak if, instead, we choose to focus on solutions, not problems. But in order to do this then we need to accept the fact that we cannot maintain the status quo. Currently, governments are fixated on improving the numbers – the stock market, GDP, economic growth. If these improve then life will somehow get better – more is better. But we have enough. With national accounting systems firmly based on measuring production, we are failing to measure the welfare of our nations. It is imperative we start to value social justice, sustainability and wellbeing.

The most widely used measure of the health and prosperity of a nation is Gross Domestic Product (or Gross National Product). This is the primary measure of success in the UK, the US and the vast majority of ‘developed’ nations. However, as Robert Kennedy said as long ago as the 1960s, “the Gross National Product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile” as the following table startlingly reveals:

GDP values: GDP doesn’t value:
Air pollution

Cigarette advertising

Ambulances to clear highways of carnage

Locks for our doors

Jails for people who break them

Destruction of our forests


Nuclear warheads

Armed police cars to fight riots

Guns and knives

TV programmes which glorify violence

The health of our children

The quality of their education

The joy of their play

The beauty of our poetry

The strength of our marriages

The intelligence of our public debate

The integrity of our public officials

Our wit & wisdom

Our courage

Our learning

Our compassion

GDP also fails to measure the immensely valuable ‘shadow economy’ – the unpaid work done by millions in volunteering in their community and caring for their family. The IMF estimates the value of the ‘shadow economy’ to be as much as 40% of GDP in developing countries and 15% in developed countries. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” Albert Einstein.

Happiness crossroads

Which direction will we go as a society? Will we choose to pursue wealth or happiness?

When asked, people will far more often say they desire happiness, love and health rather than wealth however our society deems wealth to be the object desire. Researchers at the Gallup World Poll, which surveyed respondents in 155 countries between 2005 and 2009, showed that while income undoubtedly influenced happiness, it did so for a particular kind of well-being – the kind one feels when reflecting on success and prospects for the future. Day-to-day happiness is more likely to be associated with how well one’s psychological and social needs are being met, and that’s harder to achieve with a pay check. In fact, research has shown that increased wealth can actually lead to increased unhappiness due to the following factors:

  • More superiority and inferiority
  • More status competition and consumerism
  • More status insecurity
  • More worry about how we are seen and judged
  • More threats to self-esteem and & social status, fear and negative judgements

Globally, well being has improved slightly over the past 50 years… but we’re using ever increasing amounts of resources to satisfy our needs and therefore become considerably less efficient at providing well-being. By any measure, this trend is unsustainable. The UK government is committed reducing C02 emissions by 80% by 2050 so considerable change is needed to maintain, let alone raise, wellbeing levels. The focus therefore needs to be on improving the efficiency in using resources to generate wellbeing.

Perhaps the world has a thing or two to learn from Bhutan who pioneered the ‘Gross National Happiness’ measure of well-being which has now been adopted by over 40 countries, including France, as a primary measure of success. His Majesty King Khesar of Bhutan said “Whatever work we do, whatever goals we have – and no matter how these may change in this changing world – ultimately without peace, security and happiness we have nothing. That is the essence of the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Our most important goal is the peace and happiness of our people and the security and sovereignty of the nation.”

Costa Rice sloth, happiest country in the world

What makes Costa Rica the happiest country in the world?

However, according to the New Economics Foundation’s ‘Happy Planet Index’ it is in fact Costa Rica which tops the list. The UK is 74th and the US 114th in these rankings. Amongst other achievements, this little known Central American country has attained very high life expectancy and one of the world’s highest literacy rates. So how is it that Costa Rica have become the most efficient country on the planet at supporting well-being – on a quarter of a developed country’s resources? For starters, 99% of electricity comes from renewable sources and they are pro-actively working towards carbon neutrality by 2021. They abolished their army in 1949 and have made significant investment into social programmes (yes, even during difficult economic times).

The Foresight Programme (headed by the Government Office for Science) has produced Five Ways to Wellbeing:

1. Connect with friends and family
2. Be active
3. Take notice
4. Keep learning
5. Give (generosity, altruism, compassion)

These don’t have much carbon content. These don’t need material goods. Happiness does not need to cost the Earth. However we should aim not to create happiness itself, but to create the conditions in which happiness can flourish. Rather than a blind pursuit of what we don’t have we should be aiming to foster a sense of gratitude about what we do have. Governments need to have a vision of a world that we all want. And together we need to create a great transition to get there. This transition should then be paved with good things (the five ways). Only then will we create a planet that we all want – where happiness does not cost the Earth.

Maslow said “If your only tool is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail.” We struggle to envision an alternative, and better, society because the only tool we use is GDP and as a result it is difficult to see beyond an industrial era model of success. We need a new toolbox. We count numbers and we count on people. What we really need are for our numbers to take into account people.

Stress at work

Companies which look after the welfare of their employees may actually see profits increase...

We currently measure everything in terms of the intangible units of production and consumption. We need to influence the quality of those units by creating the conditions for happiness. It’s not about the tangible hours that we work but rather the intangible differences that we make as a result of work. Businesses too often ignore the intangible of employee happiness to focus purely on the tangible of financial profits. These are not mutually exclusive and in fact inspired and happy employees will often help grow company profits. Furthermore, the American Institute of Stress reported that job-related stress actually costs the U.S. economy over $300 billion per year.

The inevitability of change is undeniable. And the willingness for change is increasing. As I write this article, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has just given a speech about the idea of ‘gross global happiness’. “Be happy, not just rich” he said. But I’ll leave you with some words from the Dalai Lama. When asked what surprised him most about humanity, he replied:

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
The result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
He lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

With thanks to the presentations featured on which have influenced this article heavily and are at times quoted verbatim.


About Jon Maiden

Founder of Goalvanise which enables people to create their Life List online, and inspires and supports them to achieve their life goals. Check out the Goalvanise blog here or my personal blog here.

2 responses »

  1. Hi Jon,

    Costa Rica is not perfect and it is still developing, but you hit the nail on the head as far as happiness being more important here than economic success. People here are just plain satisfied with life, content, more focused on family. There isn’t that mad grab for material possessions. And with no army and a focus on renewable resources and protecting the environment this is a country-wide phenomenon.

    • Jon Maiden says:

      Thanks for commenting. It’s great to get a first hand of life in Costa Rica. Of course you’re right, Costa Rica will not be perfect, but it’s certainly heading in the right direction and the world would certainly be a better place for all if it followed one of the lessons that have already been learned there. Happiness should not be seen as a novelty but the primary focus of governments. Alas, there are far too few who understand this…

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