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TEDGlobal: Nic Marks and happiness that doesn’t cost the earth

Nic Marks founded the Center for Well-Being, a consultancy that tries to expand definitions of social and governmental progress to include broader quantitative and qualitative measures of well-being.

Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a nightmare.” Marks’s dream, he tells us, is that we’ll focus less on the nightmare and more on the dream. Modern filmmaking is almost always about catastrophe – he references The Road, a bleak, post-apocalyptic film.

The environmental movement has gotten very good at using fear. But fear leads to a flight reaction, and scares people away. We need a better way to get people to engage.

When we think about positive visions of the future, we have a tendency to keep score in economic terms. But this is a vision based around greed. We’ve got enough, at least in developed societies. Our accounting systems track what we produce, but they don’t track what’s really important.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy began his ill-fated presidential campaign with a talk that closed with the phrase, “The Gross National Product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” If RFK were alive now, Marks believes, he’d be asking economists to design measures that are broader, fairer and more indicative about what people really want and value. People think money is important, but that it’s not nearly as important as happiness, health and love.

Marks has spent his adult life figuring out how we measure happiness. He’s created the Happy Planet Index (I’ve written about the index here) to measure these factors. The goal is to measure how much well-being we get from the use of planetary resources – it’s an efficiency index.

He shows a graph that measures resource use and happiness – the top right shows some very happy countries that use a whole lot of resources – the US, Western Europe, some gulf states. The bottom left uses very few resources and is deeply unhappy. But there are a few nations – mostly Latin American – that are very happy and use few resources. Costa Rica leads the graph, with a life expectancy higher than that of the US, and has – according to the Gallup poll – the happiest people in the world. And they do this with a quarter of the resources used in the western world.

What’s Costa Rica doing right? The government has committed to carbon neutrality by 2021. 99% of their electricity comes from renewable sources. They abolished their army and put resources towards education and health. “And they’ve got that Latin vibe, don’t they?”

There’s no guarantee that the US is the future. It might be Latin America. We need to pull countries from the bottom (poor and unhappy) and right (rich and environmentally wasteful) towards Costa Rica.

We’re becoming less efficient in turning natural resources into the desired outcome – happiness. We’d all like to get to 2050 without some sort of apocalypse happening. There’s an incredible challenge – we need to massively cut down our carbon emissions while figuring out how to raise national well-being and happiness.

To do this, we need to create feedback loops. Human beings are deeply motivated by the now – put a smart meter on your house, and you (and your kids) will get very good about turning off the lights. Why do we hear the stock market close on the news every day and not our energy usage – we need to monitor the targets we want to reach. We need both positive and negative feedback, and reminders of what we should be doing to be happier and healthier.

What are the five things you should do every day to be happier? Marks and his colleagues did a study for the UK government to try to determine this. The first “secret to happiness” is connection to other people. Second, be active – go for a walk or turn on the radio and dance. Third, take notice of what’s around you – the seasons changing, the world around you. Fourth, keep learning – lifetime learning has a strong link to health in the elderly. This doesn’t need to be formal learning – it can be cooking a new dish or playing an instrument. Finally, give – we feel good when we give. Give two groups $100 – the people who spend money on others, rather than on themselves, feel much better at the end of the day.

These actions don’t need a lot of material goods to succeed. Happiness does not cost the earth.

Marks closes by quoting King again: “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land.” Environmentalists and the business community need to go to the mountaintop and see a vision of the world we all want. We need a great transition to get there, and we need signposts, something like the Happy Planet index which leads us to happiness with doesn’t cost the earth.

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