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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Economics of Happiness

February 28, 2010

By Helena Norberg-Hodge (India)
February 26, 2010

Thirty-three years ago, I watched as a culture
that had been sealed off from the rest of the
world was suddenly thrown open to economic
development. Witnessing the impact of the modern
world on an ancient culture gave me insights into
how economic globalisation creates feelings of
inadequacy and inferiority, particularly in the
young, and how those psychological pressures are
helping to spread the global consumer culture.
Since that time I have been promoting the
rebuilding of community and local economies as
the foundation of an ‘Economics of Happiness’.

When I first arrived in Ladakh or "Little Tibet,"
a region high on the Tibetan plateau, it was
still largely unaffected by either colonialism or
the global economy. For political reasons, the
region had been isolated for many centuries, both
geographically and culturally. During several
years of living amongst the Ladakhis, I found
them to be the most contented and happy people I
had ever encountered. Their sense of self-worth
was deep and solid; smiles and laughter were
their constant companions. Then in 1975, the
Indian government abruptly opened Ladakh to
imported food and consumer goods, to tourism and
the global media, to western education and other
trappings of the ‘development’ process.
Romanticised impressions of the West gleaned from
media, advertising and fleeting encounters with
tourists had an immediate and profound impact on
the Ladakhis. The sanitised and glamorised images
of the urban consumer culture created the
illusion that people outside Ladakh enjoyed
infinite wealth and leisure. By contrast, working
in the fields and providing for one's own needs
seemed backward and primitive. Suddenly,
everything from their food and clothing to their
houses and language seemed inferior. The young
were particularly affected, quickly succumbing to
a sense of insecurity and self-rejection. The use
of a dangerous skin-lightening cream called "Fair
and Lovely" became widespread, symbolising the
newly-created need to imitate the distant role
models -- western, urban, blonde -- provided by the media.

Over the past three decades, I have studied this
process in numerous cultures around the world and
discovered that we are all victims of these same
psychological pressures. In virtually every
industrialised country, including the US, UK,
Australia, France and Japan, there is now what is
described as an epidemic of depression. In Japan,
it is estimated that one million youths refuse to
leave their bedrooms – sometimes for decades – in
a phenomenon known as “Hikikomori." In the US, a
growing proportion of young girls are so deeply
insecure about their appearance they fall victim
to anorexia and bulimia, or undergo expensive cosmetic surgery.

Why is this happening? Too often these signs of
breakdown are seen as ‘normal’: we assume that
depression is a universal affliction, that
children are by nature insecure about their
appearance, that greed, acquisitiveness, and
competition are innate to the human condition.
What we fail to consider are the billions of
dollars spent by marketers targeting children as
young as two, with a goal of instilling the
belief that material possessions will ensure them
the love and appreciation they crave.

As global media reaches into the most remote
parts of the planet, the underlying message is:
"if you want to be seen, heard, appreciated and
loved you must have the right running shoes, the
most fashionable jeans, the latest toys and
gadgets”. But the reality is that consumption
leads to greater competition and envy, leaving
children more isolated, insecure, and unhappy,
thereby fuelling still more frantic consumption
in a vicious cycle. In this way, the global
consumer culture taps into the fundamental human
need for love and twists it into insatiable greed.

Today, more and more people are waking up to fact
that, because of its environmental costs, an
economic model based on endless consumption is
simply unsustainable. But because there is far
less understanding of the social and
psychological costs of the consumer culture, most
believe that making the changes necessary to save
the environment will entail great sacrifice. Once
we realise that oil-dependent global growth is
not only responsible for climate change and other
environmental crises, but also for increased
stress, anxiety and social breakdown, then it
becomes clear that the steps we need to take to
heal the planet are the same as those needed to
heal ourselves: both require reducing the scale
of the economy – in other words localising rather
than continuing to globalise economic activity.
My sense from interviewing people in four
continents is that this realisation is already
growing, and has the potential to spread like wildfire.

Economic localisation means bringing economic
activity closer to home -- supporting local
economies and communities rather than huge,
distant corporations. Instead of a global economy
based on sweatshop in the South, stressed-out
two-earner families in the North, and a handful
of billionaire elites in both, localisation means
a smaller gap between rich and poor and closer
contact between producers and consumers. This
translates into greater social cohesion : a
recent study found that shoppers at farmers’
markets had ten times more conversations than people in supermarkets.

And community is a key ingredient in happiness.
Almost universally, research confirms that
feeling connected to others is a fundamental
human need. Local, community-based economies are
also crucial for the well-being of our children,
providing them with living role models and a
healthy sense of identity. Recent childhood
development research demonstrates the importance,
in the early years of life, of learning about who
we are in relation to parents, siblings, and the
larger community. These are real role models,
unlike the artificial stereotypes found in the media.

A deep connection with nature is similarly
fundamental to our well-being. Author Richard
Louv has even coined the expression ‘nature
deficit disorder’ to describe what is happening
to children deprived of contact with the living
world. The therapeutic benefits of contact with
nature, meanwhile, are becoming ever more clear.
A recent UK study showed that 90 percent of
people suffering from depression experience an
increase in self-esteem after a walk in a park.
After a visit to a shopping centre, on the other
hand, 44 percent feel a decrease in self-esteem
and 22 percent feel more depressed. Considering
that over 31 million prescriptions for
anti-depressants were handed out in the UK last
year, this is a crucial finding.

Despite the enormity of the crises we face,
turning towards the more community-based,
localised economies represents a powerful
solution multiplier. As Kali Wendorf, editor of
Kindred magazine, says, “the way forward is
actually quite simple: it’s more time with each
other, more time in nature, more time in
collective situations that give us a sense of
community, like farmers’ markets, for example, or
developing a relationship with the corner shop
where you get your fruits and vegetables. It’s
not going back to the Stone Age. It’s just
getting back to that foundation of connection again.”

Efforts to localise economies are happening at
the grassroots all over the world, and bringing
with them a sense of well-being. A young man who
started an urban garden in Detroit, one of
America’s most blighted cities, told us, “I’ve
lived in this community over 35 years and people
I’d never met came up and talked to me when we
started this project. We found that it reconnects
us with the people around us, it makes community
a reality”. Another young gardener in Detroit put
it this way: "Everything just feels better to
people when there is something growing."

Global warming and the end of cheap oil demand a
fundamental shift in the way that we live. The
choice is ours. We can continue down the path of
economic globalisation, which at the very least
will create greater human suffering and
environmental problems, and at worst, threatens
our very survival. Or, through localisation, we
can begin to rebuild our communities and local
economies, the foundations of sustainability and happiness.
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