Gregg Mitman

Gregg Mitman

The United States may be one of the richest nations on the planet, but we aren't the happiest. Neither are Britain, Japan, Germany or many other wealthy countries, according to a new "World Happiness Report" commissioned by the United Nations.

The United States ranks 11th in the report.

Not surprisingly, the world's poorest countries are far less happy than their well-to-do counterparts. Many countries with low per-capita income rank at or near the bottom of the happiness scale, especially those with corrupt political systems, high infant mortality rates, weak social networks and other negative factors.

Clearly, household income plays a significant role in whether people are happy. But that's only part of the picture. A palette of complex and interacting conditions influences our sense of well-being, including health, family stability, job security and environmental quality.

The happiness study, and the broader discussion of which it is a part, is especially timely as the economy struggles to pull out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. The key to recovery, according to mainstream opinion, is economic growth fueled by the consumption of goods and services. According to this view, we need to buy a lot of stuff, and the more the merrier.

But a growing number of thinkers — economists, psychologists and environmentalists among them — are questioning a return to business as usual. They argue our insatiable appetite for consumer goods imposes a high cost not only on the environment, but on our personal sense of satisfaction. An increasing material standard of living does not indefinitely correlate with an ever higher level of happiness. It appears to reach a point of diminishing returns.

Boston College economist Juliet Schor studies this problem. In books such as "True Wealth and The Overworked American," Schor argues for a lower-growth economy that is fairer, less stress-inducing and better for the environment — one in which gross domestic product is not the primary determinant of quality of life.

The idea is spreading. Bhutan, for example, has pioneered the concept of "gross national happiness" as an alternative means of tracking social progress. Bhutan's index includes economic factors, but it also incorporates cultural integrity, conservation, governance, physical and mental health, community values and education. Canada, France and other countries are considering similar measures.

Supporters of this movement list among its many benefits a lighter footprint on the planet, that shifting our emphasis to cultural experiences, time with family and friends, lower material demands and a slower pace would ease the pressure on natural resources. And they argue that we really have no choice, that our current rate of consumption is unsustainable for the environment and the economy.

The notion that we face natural limits to economic growth has been argued since at least the late 18th century, and this year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of a milestone study, "The Limits to Growth." Critics of such warnings hold that technological innovation and efficiency, driven by market forces, has kept the day of reckoning at bay and always will.

Rather than wait to see who's right, our best bet would be to design an economy that sustains the environment and creates secure jobs, better health, more free time and a higher quality of life. We'll all be happier if we do.

Gregg Mitman is interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison.

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