Are You in Control of Your Life?

John de Graaf, filmmaker, co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and Executive Director of Take Back Your Time, is reporting for from the International Gross National Happiness Conference.

See also:John de Graaf’s first dispatch

Held in an enormous hotel in the southern Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu, the International Gross National Happiness conference began with a talk from an acknowledged world expert in the field, economics professor John Helliwell, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He led the entire audience of 700 people in rousing if not always on-key English and Portuguese versions of the “happiness theme song,” an old favorite I remembered from childhood:

The more we get together, together, together,
The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.
For your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends.
The more we get together the happier we’ll be.

Social connection, Helliwell stressed, is a key to happiness. But as a worldwide Gallup Poll of 140 countries over three years reveals, other factors matter more than our economic measure of well-being, the Gross Domestic Product. Income is not irrelevant–the highest scores for happiness are found in wealthier countries. Freedom from hunger and physical insecurity is a must. But after moderate levels of comfort and security are met, other factors assert themselves.

Among them are a sense of control over one’s life, government as free as possible from corruption, friends and relatives one can count on, trust in one’s neighbors, generosity (a key question in the poll is “Have you donated to charity this year?”), freedom (another question: “Do you have the freedom to do what you choose in life?”–consistently, contrary to what Americans might expect, the highest scores on this question come in precisely the Scandinavian countries we often mock as “nanny states”).

Religion is definitely a plus for individuals, but probably because it helps build social connections. Countries with the most religious fervor, like the United States, don’t necessarily rank near the top in life satisfaction. The consistent happiness champion? Denmark–with Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden not far behind.

Jon Hall, an Englishman now with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, followed Dr. Helliwell with encouraging news. The OECD (made up of about thirty of the world’s richest nations) is looking for a whole new set of indicators on which to judge the progress of member countries. Its new “Global Project” aims at collecting so-called “best practices”–social and economic policies that are clearly shown to increase life satisfaction.

Hall cited other good news: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, only two years ago the champion of economic growth and American-style economics, recently organized a commission led by Nobel Prize economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. The commission called for a focus on indicators such as health, family cohesion and leisure time instead of the current emphasis on GDP.

A new European Commission is called “GDP and Beyond,” and OECD’s recent World Forum in Pusan, South Korea, brought together two thousand researchers and activists to consider policies built on measures of life satisfaction, rather than economic growth. “It really is a movement now,” Hall declared. The point is to find ways that can clearly tell us whether people are satisfied or suffering. “Statistics,” as they are now, Hall suggested, “are people with their tears washed away.”

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