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The happiness manifesto

Nic Marks, founder of the Centre for Well-Being, explains his organization’s happiness index

By Chris Lee Ramsden

What if we got it wrong? What if an expanding GDP doesn’t create happiness? What if, far from securing the well-being of present and future generations, the ‘blind pursuit of economic growth’ creates an array of social and environmental problems? And, what if it’s not too late to free ourselves from the tyranny of economic theories that lead to unsustainable economies, small pockets of concentrated wealth and large tracts of human misery?

Nic Marks, founder of New Economics Foundation think tank the Centre for Well-Being wrote The Happiness Manifesto in just four weeks after delivering an inspirational TED talk in Oxford, UK. He wanted to share some of his organization’s findings with a wider audience, and explain how not only governments but also individuals can improve the well-being and happiness of people all over the world – and how much we will have to do differently to achieve this. Rooted in rigorous statistical methodology, his approach challenges our basic assumptions about education, development, healthcare and economics.

Marks’ ideas aren’t new. One of the greatest documents in the English language, the American Declaration of Independence, lays it out in its second sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness.

Martin Luther King focused on the first half of the sentence in his campaign for civil rights. A year after King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy shone a light on the second half when he said, in an address to Kansas University, “GDP measures everything in life except that which makes it worthwhile.” Weeks later, he too was assassinated, and GDP remained the dominant pursuit of Western governments. Now, Nic Marks and the London-based NEF (New Economics Foundation) have emerged with a summary of the challenges facing the world’s economies:

Much of modern life is based upon a false logic, a logic that assumes that happiness and well-being come from financial prosperity. Our [the UK] Gross National Product, now, is over USD 800 billion a year, but that Gross National Product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.

The Happiness Manifesto, however, is not just a criticism of blinkered economic policy; it also outlines a blueprint for an alternative approach to running an economy, and how to measure progress. “The time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being,” write Marks. “And measures of well-being should be put in a context of sustainability.”

Perhaps the most exciting part of this reading experience is the realization that this is no dry academic exercise in utopian thinking. Marks’ ideas are already creating ripples in government policy, fuelled by the flaws and injustices in our banking systems exposed in the global credit crunch of 2008. Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron said in November 2010, “Economic growth is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.”

Marks has given top-ranking politicians a new message to take to their electorates: focusing on well-being instead of GDP means we can create a sustainable global economy without giving up all the trappings of wealth. After all, happier people are more productive, have better immune systems and live longer.

To sum up, The Happiness Manifesto is no touchy-feely, we-ought-to-be-happier motivational speech. It’s a hard look at how the pursuit of economic growth has undermined human well-being and damaged our world. Not only does Marks propose an alternative course of action, he does it in a book that can be read in one sitting. If you’d like a taste, watch Mark’s 17-minute TED talk that forms the basis of his book.



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