Sustainable development and happiness

Juxtaposition: A woman walking to work passing a homeless woman near Colombo. Financial wealth can only increase happiness to a certain extent; for the majority of people, a few conditions need to be met to feel considerably happy: enough food, water, a safe place to live, and then a way of safe transport and some sort of experiences which are perceived as bringing joy – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Can money buy happiness?
logoWednesday, 5 April 2017
When discussing sustainable development, the very concept of it requires including not only a rational dimension of costs and benefits for humanity related to sustainable or unsustainable behaviour, but also a much deeper philosophical dimension.

When we say sustainable development means to behave in a way that future generations can enjoy the same resources and benefits as us from this planet, then it assumes that a person can be empathetic towards future generations. If this skill is missing, that person can only engage in SD to an extent as in a real-time reduction of costs and increase of direct benefits. This is for sure one way of looking at it, however it misses out the fullness of what SD really includes.

What is the goal of life for the majority of people? Based on a number of research efforts and also common understanding, it is: Happiness. Now happiness is highly subjective and individual, however there are some aspects which are most common to be valid.

Having Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in mind, which includes physical and safety needs at the bottom, it is well understood that as long as someone does not have sufficient food to eat, water to drink and a place to live, the person will not be experiencing happiness. Exceptions, which are few, are those who choose to live under such circumstances.

Numerous efforts of researchers and experts have dedicated themselves to the question if money can buy happiness. Where they use different approaches to look at this correlation, they all highlight that money or material wealth can only make a person happy up to a certain extent, then happiness might stagnate or increase at a very small degree compared to the increase of wealth.

An article published by Princeton University argues: “While most people believe that having more income would make them happier, Princeton University researchers have found that the link is greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion. People with above average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities.”

The researchers have developed an “enjoyment scale” to measure people’s quality of daily life, the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM). Applying this method respondents were asked how much time of a day they spend in a bad mood. It showed that those earning less than $ 20,000 a year spend only 12% more of their time in a bad mood than those earning more than $ 100,000 a year.

Now one might say happiness is more than a “good mood”. Is it a state of mind, only a good mood or contentment and peace of mind? The things we run after are often giving us “only” a good feeling, often temporary. To reach real contentment and peace of mind, if one listens to those who we call wise in this world, has to come anyway from within and is far from materialistic enjoyments including worldly experiences.

So the “happiness” we thrive to reach with material and worldly means is necessarily connected with emotions and “good feelings”. The real happiness we anyway cannot achieve with such means. Therefore the mentioned research very much applies here.

IN-1Overall life satisfaction

In another study, the same researchers investigated respondents’ overall life satisfaction and their happiness from moment to moment. They found that income was more weakly correlated with individual’s happiness from moment to moment than it was with their overall life satisfaction. And this is a very interesting outcome.

People who are wealthy think they should be happy and satisfied and answer accordingly, where their results for moment to moment experiences do notreflect this happiness. This means that the judgement of their lives and how it should be perceived does not necessarily correlate with their real-time experiences. So they think they are happy, which in reality they are not. Similarly a poorer person might think he is unhappy, which in real-time experiences he is actually not.

And when do we live if not now – in moment to moment experiences? Where are we happy if not in our daily lives? Only in our mind we might think or believe that we are happy if we have this or that, but this is a trick of the mind, to keep us going and wanting more and in the end we are wasting our life.

Now this is what we somehow know and have seen in our personal environment and internationally via TV or other sources, the rich person who either works 24/7 and does not enjoy life at all or is continuously worried about possessions and the loss or increase of them; or the rich person who does not work at all however feels useless and lost and sees no purpose in life. And the examples of less wealthy people who are however happy and content.

The majority of people are to varying degrees somewhere in between; and obviously there are happy rich and unhappy poor people too. However related to the above research, even a happy rich person will not perceive the same amount of happiness acquiring a third house, compared to the happiness when buying one house after not having an own place.

Material wealth

Having in mind that financial wealth can only increase happiness to a certain extent, one can understand that on average, for the majority of people, a few conditions need to be met to feel considerably happy: enough food, water, a safe place to live, and then a way of safe transport and some sort of experiences which are perceived as bringing joy: entertainment, traveling and other material items which are not connected to needs such as jewellery or other items.

After Maslow, only once these requirements are met, a person can have good relationships and dedicate himself to other questions in life.

Interestingly the research concludes that despite the weak relationship between material wealth and happiness, the main intention of most humans is to increase this wealth, giving up part of the happiness which is connected to a less material life.

To dedicate personal time to this thrive for material wealth is everybody’s individual right. Unfortunately this focus on material wealth comes at a cost, and not only for the individual however for humanity as a whole. What do we all give up for the illusion of achieving happiness through increase of material wealth? Our time! Our health! Our planet! Our society!

This is the real cost, which we all have to face. With this strategy, in the end we might increase material wealth, still globally for a few and not for the majority of humans; but at the same time we destroy our very own habitat.

What do we feel is quality of life? Which is supposed to make us happy?

Is it to wear expensive clothes, drive a posh car and possess all kinds of items? When at the same time we cannot breathe fresh air, drink fresh healthy water, and eat nutritious food? How can we live in congested cities where the basic requirements which we need as humans, if we want or not, are not met at all; and still run after additional material wealth? How can we have the newest fashion items at home when at the same time we need to wear masks when walking in the city, buy water in bottles and have to pay extra for organic, not poisoned food?

And on top of it that does not even make us happy!

Increasing awareness

The solution lies really in increasing awareness about our behaviour and the consumption patterns we follow and in which we have enslaved ourselves. We have to develop responsible consumer behaviour and increase awareness about how much material wealth is really necessary to live a happy life and the connection between each individual consumer behaviour and our current global environmental situation.

Not many are conscious about this correlation, and rather point at big industries who destroy our natural habitats. However if we buy the products of these industries, we are perpetrators too. We vote with each purchase, which world we want to live in. Every person, no matter the profession or background, is a consumer in this world. That’s a lot of votes! Let’s use our buying power consciously to support those organisations who facilitate sustainable global development.

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