What do you do when your house is on fire? Play fiddle, perhaps sing that Billy Joel song? When the planet began simmering with trapped heat, young people fighting off eco-anxiety organised school strikes, they came out on the streets in protests and dharnas demanding a better future. As humanity writhed and contorted with pain unleashed by a virus that emerged from the darkest desires of an exploitative economic order or perhaps from the blind spots of scientific arrogance, we noticed headless chickens, and we witnessed fire-fighting angels. As the Fahrenheit of suffering climbed skyward we encountered untold despair but we also met hope in the shape of a stranger with an oxygen cylinder.
Where from did hope and resilience arise? How do we continue with a positive frame of mind in the face of epochal upheavals that scar and disrupt millions of lives?
The ninth World Happiness Report published earlier this year, which ranked countries by happiness in the backdrop of Covid-19, found a great amount of resilience globally with considerable national variation. It quantified happiness using ‘life evaluation’, a stable measure wherein respondents were asked to evaluate their current life on a scale of zero to 10, imagined as the steps of a ladder.
To understand how the pandemic affected lives, the report went deeper to study positive and negative emotions which, clubbed with ‘life evaluation’, arrives at a measure of subjective ‘well-being’. Elsewhere, psychologist Martin Seligman, who has studied well-being, counts positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment as its measurable elements. Well-being interests us most because of its policy implications.
The happiness report found trust and benevolence among the important drivers of well-being and that they also go a long way in fighting the pandemic. Think of the angels and the fire-fighters. Think of the assurance to know that you are not alone. The study asserts, ‘The extent to which people trust their governments, and have trust in the benevolence of others, supports not only their ability to maintain their happiness before and during the pandemic but also reduces the Covid-19 death toll....’
However in a world of bare-knuckle competition, where existence pivots on material acquisition, trust and its reflection in happiness remains a neglected virtue. In the sphere of government and politics, authoritarian rulers spend sleepless nights mistrusting their subjects, nation-states are divided into clubs hardly trusting each other as they speed along the autobahns of economic growth while corporations chase profits. All of this has an impact on happiness which the pandemic aggravated.
So from the level of the individual right up to the state and larger groupings, the problem of trust is coded into an economic order pegged on exploitation of limited resources and the illusion of endless growth. In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell writes, “...to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” This applies as much to people as it does to collectives.
Today, Russell’s comment about happiness or Gandhi’s oft-quoted words about need, sufficiency and greed are increasingly echoed in the works of the proponents of degrowth who warn us about the limits to which the planet can bear our hyper-competitive, material intensive and climate-disrupting lifestyles. Noted theorist of de-growth, Giorgos Kallis writes, “Limits are not a constraint for freedom, limits are a condition for freedom,” meaning that the setting of limits to growth and respecting planetary boundaries, does not curtail freedom but is necessary for freedom.
Readers of dystopian fiction know well that the trade-off between freedom and happiness is complicated but we all realise that GDP and growth figures are not the panacea for suffering. In fact, as advocates of de-growth would argue, GDP and growth constitute a wrong scale and it is possible to augment quality of life and happiness while limiting economic expansion.
The 2021 report on happiness has devised a metric called Well-Being-Adjusted Life-Years (or WELLBYs) for individuals and nations, which could provide one entry point to challenge the dominance of economic growth-based approaches to policy. WELLBYs marry well-being (from any reason) to the length of life and among other things assign a lower than usual value to money compared to the number of years one lives.
In the pandemic’s context, trust, connectedness, volunteering, community and equality emerged among other conditions that foster well-being. From climate activist to dreamy-eyed solar punk, many believers of a hopeful future extol a similar set of values. It is time now to explore this common ground, to seek the spot where the trail of happiness meets the stream of a clean green tomorrow.
Writer and climate activist