The all-consuming pursuit of happiness

That we live in an age of consumerism is all too obvious: a society in which each household owes an average of about £2,400 on credit cards. Consumer debt causes great distress to many people and, in many cases, is closely associated with mental ill health.

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So, how do we row back from all this spending? How do we find happiness in living more simply?

We have to, for debt is not the only serious consequence of consumerism. Our collective demand for energy, water, land, meat, palm oil, timber, and much else besides is rapidly and irreversibly depleting and polluting the resources and ecosystems on which everyone depends. We are in real danger of going into ecological overdraft.

Although it is possible to be a more ethical consumer, generally speaking, spending does translate directly into material consumption. Take clothes as an example, one which exemplifies prevailing attitudes and behaviours. The average UK household spends about £1,700 a year on clothes. About 30 per cent of these garments remain in wardrobes unworn and an estimated £140m worth are sent to landfill every year.

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Casual consumption and waste creation such as this is highly problematic. Research suggests three of the nine planetary boundaries essential for avoiding unacceptable environmental change have already been crossed. It’s time to recognise that every manufactured item or service we buy comes with several environmental costs.

Protecting the environment alongside economic and social development is critical for our well-being and it also makes business sense. Producing better and consuming more wisely is key to establishing resilient markets that stay within our planet’s safe operating space, safeguard our natural wealth and contribute to overall economic and social well-being. Increasingly companies are expected to address, not to worsen, environmental degradation – it is becoming part of their social licence to operate.

What does this mean for us, the consumer? Put simply, as well as asking ourselves whether we can afford a particular purchase or experience, we also need to ask whether the Earth can really afford to provide it?

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The prospect of changing our buying habits and expectations may be uninviting, but it helps to remember that personal wellbeing is not about material wealth (once basic needs are met).

Powerful evidence can be found in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. The HPI logs measures of life-expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint for 89 nations, and produces an overall score for each country. 

So, who are the happiest people on the planet? Well, Costa Rica is among the top-ranked countries. Although its GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European countries and North America, and its per capita ecological footprint is just one third of the size of the USA’s, people living in Costa Rica enjoy higher wellbeing than the residents of many rich nations, and live longer than people in the US. 

It’s not surprising to learn that wealth does play a small part in happiness. After all, incomes are more than 25 times higher in the happiest countries than in the least happy ones. In Denmark, another of those happy places, there is a decoupling of wealth and well-being. Danes will tell you that they focus on the small things that really matter, including spending more quality time with friends and family, and enjoying the good things in life.

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Indeed, we may know deep down that you can’t buy happiness but this intuition often gets lost under the many pressures to consume; we're bombarded by messages - often subliminal - to buy, buy, buy. A much happier future can be ours, though, if we concentrate on cultivating non-material assets such as good relationships, appreciating what we’ve got, a sense of meaning, and new skills, instead of on making and spending money.

Standard of living has much less bearing on happiness than the attitudes, values and expectations we bring to the way we live; at least, this holds true once basic human needs are met. Essential for wellbeing are a warm dry home, decent food and reasonable income. The global economic system, fixated on growth and profit, and resulting in environmental destruction, is deeply flawed. Radically different frameworks exist, based on real human needs and environmental limits. The challenge is how we embrace these and make them an attractive alternative to wider society.

Clearly, it’s time to get real about this stuff: the Earth’s environmental limits are the ultimate bottom line. There has to be an economic transformation its we are to slow the rapid trend towards disastrous higher temperatures. This will be complex to achieve, but the guiding principle is simple: life offers rich possibilities far more satisfying than constant consumption. All of us who have more than enough, need to learn to become happily modest consumers.

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