Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

John de Graaf: The politics of happiness (Text of the keynote speech from NPI's 2010 gala)

Editor's Note: Following the conclusion of our Spring Fundraising Gala last night, we've had a few folks ask if we could make the text of John de Graaf's keynote speech available. He has kindly agreed to do so; what follows are his prepared remarks, delivered last night at the Community Center at Mercer View. We'd like to express our profound thanks to John for coming and participating in our event. His message is important and refreshing, and more people need to hear it.

When Gael Tarleton [who sits on NPI's newly formed Board of Directors] invited me to give this talk she asked me to be provocative and, with your permission, I will be.

As I considered what I would say here, I thought about how young Andrew was when he started the organization that would become the Northwest Progressive Institute. And I was reminded of a story.

You may have noticed that the subject of happiness is hot right now. Books and articles galore. But the interest in happiness is not entirely new.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land of green valleys and soaring mountains, a boy of sixteen was crowned King — and began in a quiet way to change the world.

The year was 1972 — not so long ago. The faraway land was a tiny Himalayan Kingdom called Bhutan, thought of by many as the model for Shangri-La.

And the sixteen year old king was Jigme Wangchuck, who, when asked what he would do to increase Bhutan’s Gross National Product, replied that, as far as he was concerned:

Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product!

… and Gross National Happiness would be the goal of his reign.

Kids say the darndest things!

Now if any leader, young or old, had made those remarks here in the United States, he or she would have received a few chuckles perhaps, then a collective yawn, and an exhortation to get real and get back to making money.

But the people of Bhutan take their kings very seriously, and slowly over the next thirty eight years, they began to put a little meat on the concept of Gross National Happiness. They wanted to figure out how to measure it, how to enhance it through government and social policies, and how to educate themselves about the behaviors that lead to greater joy.

They invited leading “happiness scientists” to their once isolated land — psychologists and economists and ecologists and philosophers and sociologists and experts in health and in the creation of scientific surveys.

In time, they began to measure nine domains that affect happiness:
  • Psychological well-being or mental health
  • Physical health
  • Time or work-life balance
  • Education
  • Cultural vitality and expression
  • Social connection and relationships
  • Environmental quality and access to nature
  • Quality of government
And finally… finally…

Material well-being.

It’s telling that material well-being (translation: stuff), the near-obsessive goal of American economics, is only one of the dimensions Bhutan uses to analyze economic decisions. That’s because research has shown that stuff only makes us happier up to a point. For poor nations, happiness tends to rise quickly as purchasing power and standard of living increases.

But past a certain level of income, the curve of increased satisfaction flattens and eventually becomes a straight line. It may even begin to decline. So, for instance, in the United States, surveys of self-reported life satisfaction show a slight downward trend over the past half century, despite a near-tripling of average incomes.

It is true that in virtually all societies, rich people are happier than poor people, a phenomenon that reflects status and power differences and the psychological fact that we tend to judge our success, and therefore, rate our satisfaction, in comparison to others. But as an entire society’s income rises past a minimum of modest comfort, overall levels of happiness do not rise with it.

This finding leads former Harvard University president Derek Bok, author of the terrific new book, The Politics of Happiness, to a sensible observation:
If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?
What is the point, indeed?

By now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with progressive politics.

Well, some of the world’s leading happiness experts created surveys for Bhutan to use in measuring its people’s life satisfaction. And the government of Bhutan is using the results to guide its economic, social and environmental policies.

They’ve even used it to decide not to join the WTO!

In the past decade, Bhutan has taken its message of happiness to the world. In fact, Bhutan’s Secretary of Happiness was in Seattle this week.

He spoke at the Green Festival and the Environmental Protection Agency, and met with members of the City Council.

The happiness surveys developed for Bhutan have been used in Brazil and Canada and other countries — in cities, in universities and even in corporations.

In our neighbor community of Victoria, British Columbia, civic organizations formed a Happiness Partnership and conducted a scientific sampling of the nine domains of happiness in their city.

We are now hoping to do that in Seattle.

And I want to invite you all to be part of this campaign. In fact, it seems we may have a little friendly “happiness” competition among Northwest cities — Victoria, Vancouver, Bellingham, Seattle, Olympia and Portland.

Imagine taking seriously what Thomas Jefferson wrote about governments being instituted to promote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He didn’t say property, or maximum incomes or the grossest national product.

He said happiness.

Imagine asking a simple question: What’s our economy for, anyway?

And concluding, with Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service, that its purpose is “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.”

In other words, Gross National Happiness with justice and sustainability.

How might this affect our politics?

Well, interestingly, only six percent of Victoria residents said they thought they’d be happier if they had more possessions. Ranking their material satisfaction, they gave it a score of ninety two on a scale of one hundred.

They were far less happy with their financial security, giving it a score of only fifty three. But the lowest score of all was for “time balance” — a score of only forty six out of one hundred.

According to the Victoria survey, “Stress and problems of time-balance were the most important factors in limiting well-being across the regional population.”

I suspect that our survey in Seattle will produce similar results, but with scores for time balance and economic security even lower than in Victoria.

And I would suggest that this has some implications for our politics that progressives have not taken seriously.

For example, in a recent article in the Huffington Post, Roger Hickey, the organizer of the America’s Future Now conference held this week in Washington D.C., wrote:
Every progressive completely agrees that we must restore the kind of supercharged economic growth we had in the 1950 and 1960s if we are to end unemployment and reduce the deficit.
Whoa! Now I don’t know about you, but every progressive I know completely agrees that such a development would be ecological suicide.

Our ecological footprint is already five times what is sustainable. If everyone in the world consumed as we do, we’d need five planets.

What we need now is not supercharged economic growth, but an economy that is less consumptive, kinder to the earth, more local and with less of our time committed to the market, so that we have more time for our communities, for our families, for our health and to be good environmental stewards.

Green, alternative technologies can help us to transition there, but they can never perpetuate a consumer lifestyle that knows no limits on a planet already stretched to the limit. Mr. Hickey needs to seriously rethink this.

Progressives need to re-think this. And if we do, it will suggest a different strategy — a strategy centered on time instead of growth.

Here of some examples of the kind of policies we should promote:
  • Paid family leave. Only the United States, Swaziland, Liberia and Papua New Guinea don’t guarantee at least paid maternity leave.
  • Paid sick days. Only a handful of desperately poor countries and the United States, don’t guarantee paid leave when you’re sick.
  • Paid vacation time. Only the United States, Guyana, Suriname, Nepal and Burma don’t guarantee at least some paid vacation time.
Washington State could be the leader in ensuring vacation time, either by initiative or by an act of the Legislature.

And we should support the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, sponsored in Congress by a true progressive, Representative Alan Grayson of Florida.

Here’s another idea: the choice of shorter work-time.

In the Netherlands and some other European countries workers have a legal right to reduce their hours without losing their jobs. They keep the same hourly pay, pro-rated benefits and full health care.

This is an enormous expansion of personal freedom — the right to choose time over money, to select shorter hours of work without losing one’s livelihood.

Each of these policy reforms is essential to good health. Indeed, our lack of these rights is one big reason Americans have the worst health in the industrial world, despite paying twice as much as everyone else does for healthcare.

Such ideas should have been part of the health care debate. Progressives should have made them part of the healthcare debate. If we enact these policies, we can become healthier and ultimately, at far less cost.

Right now, Americans work two hundred to four hundred hours more each year than Europeans do. We need to work less so all can work. We can reduce unemployment by sharing the work. Most Americans don’t need more stuff in their lives. But they desperately need more time, and more opportunity to work and work reasonable hours.

Such changes will make our families and communities stronger. And they will reduce our impact on the environment.

With more time, people walk more, bicycle more, and use public transit more frequently. With longer working hours, they choose the fastest, most energy-intensive, form of transport. This is not rocket science and many studies confirm it.

A politics of time is also a politics of happiness. Gallup does an annual poll, measuring levels of well-being in one hundred and forty countries. Even Forbes magazine confirmed that the United States in nowhere in the top ten.

The four happiest countries are Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Forbes explained what they have in common. They are among the world’s most egalitarian nations and they pay the greatest attention to work-life balance.

Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett added one more commonality they share. They pay among the highest taxes in the world.

Obviously, they get something from those taxes.

A politics of happiness and of time balance has profoundly progressive implications.
If we don’t understand this, the right does and they want to nip this in the bud. Their think tanks and scholars are already at work to hijack happiness.

Consider two new books by Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, and, sad to say, a native of Seattle.

One is called Gross National Happiness. Seriously.

The other is called The Battle, and is endorsed by Carl Rove and Dick Cheney as a “must read for conservatives who want our movement to dominate the intellectual and policy debates of America’s coming vital decades.”

Yeah, right.

These books are to the science of happiness what the shills for BP are to the science of climate change. Contrary to what virtually every happiness study has found, Brooks contends that the happiest countries are those with the least government and lowest taxes. Happiness researchers have found pretty much the opposite.

To Danes and Swedes and Finns and the Dutch, Brooks’ findings must read like a joke book. Brooks does agree that after a certain point more money doesn’t make people happier. Then he uses it to argue that, therefore, in America, inequality doesn’t matter. Yeah, right. And he even argues that reducing American working hours would make workers unhappier.

Brooks says that Americans don’t work long hours because they have to; they do it because they love to work so much.

Vacations would make them completely miserable.

Yeah, right.

Well, I’ve got news for Mr. Brooks.

Gallup’s daily survey finds that Americans are twenty percent happier on weekends than on workdays — what a surprise! They are thirty to forty percent happier on holidays. And when they rank the happiness their daily activities bring, working ends up second from the bottom, more pleasurable only than that mother of all downers, the morning commute.

By contrast, socializing after work ranks second from the top!

Now, I’m not knocking work. A good job that contributes to society and provides for one’s family is central to a happy life.

We need to be sure that every American has the opportunity to have such a job.

But more is not always better and fifty hours a week is not better than forty or thirty two, especially when we are sacrificing our health and social connections.

Arthur Brooks’ conclusions may be laughable to happiness researchers.

But the fact that the President of the American Enterprise Institute devotes not one, but two, books to the politics of happiness, tells us just how dangerous he feels this subject is for the right and just how necessary he — and the big conservative money that feeds him — feel it is to hijack this dialogue before it begins.

We can’t let them do that. And we can’t let this moment pass without action.

The politics of happiness are progressive at their core. They call for policies that go deeper than economic growth, to the core values of family and community, health and stewardship, a balanced life on a sustainable planet.

And they are part of our progressive tradition.

Nearly a hundred years ago, when thousands of women left the dismal textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to demand a better life, they carried banners which read: We want bread and roses too.

Bread and roses. The twin goals of the old labor movement.

Higher wages to buy the bread.

Shorter hours to smell the roses.

Somehow we’ve come to focus solely on the bread and we’ve left the roses to wither. It’s time to water them again.

And this dinner, for this organization, with its concern for reframing the debate and refining progressive political strategy, is the place for the watering to begin.

Congratulations on your past successes and here’s to many more!

I’m honored to be here.

Thank you.


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