In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness

Jonathan returns to Findhorn pondering how we can measure happiness

Good to be back in Findhorn. At the most elemental level, it is simply a relief to be able to sleep properly for the first time in a while. By the time I left Thailand, the daytime highs of 37 degrees were dropping to around 26 degrees at night. With no air-conditioning in the ashram, this made for long hours of nocturnal tossing and turning.

It is also good to come back at this moment in our educational cycle, with the fresh arrival of the new semester-long bunch of 18 undergraduates from an assortment of US universities and of participants on our month-long Ecovillage Training Programme. This is our ninth year of running the EVT and it always fills up at around 30 participants. This year’s group includes folk from Madagascar, Burma, Thailand, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil as well as a fair sprinkling of Europeans and North Americans. Craig and Zoe hold the focus for the entire month with great creativity and gusto.

Ultimately, however, it is just simply good to come back to Findhorn, irrespective of the time of the year. There are generally very high SPM (smiles per minute) and HPH (hugs per hour) readings at any given time and a general sense of well-being. There is an ease about the place that pulls the visitor and returning member into its easy embrace.

Given the strong emphasis on community and quality relationships here, it is unsurprising that this should be so. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a growing feeling that our society has taken a wrong turn somewhere along the path and that in important respects, quality of life is in decline. Many find it hard to believe that such feelings can be entirely attributed to nostalgia for lost youth.

As I travelled up from Glasgow by train on my journey home, I read a piece in The Guardian by Madeleine Bunting entitled: “Britain is at last waking up to the politics of wellbeing’. She quoted a UNICEF report that ranked the UK as the worst place to grow up in the industrialised world and suggested that there is a “pervasive sense that something has gone awry in this country in the quality of relationships – within families, between peers, in neighbourhoods’.

Scientists have been playing with this idea, trying to come up with ‘alternative indicators’ to the standard, largely unconsciously accepted measure of national wellbeing that is Gross Domestic Product. A range of formulas has been developed – the Human Development Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare to name but a few. Each of these provides a weighted average of a number of indicators, including GDP, subjective feelings of wellbeing, health of ecological resources, depth and quality of educational, health coverage and so on.

Pretty much all of these have found that quality of life has been dropping throughout the industrialised world since around the mid-1970s, even as (or perhaps because) income levels have continued to grow. No great surprise there. In this context, what we are about in Findhorn is a demonstration of the old-fashioned and rather quaint notion that beyond a certain level of consumption (that almost all of us have long since passed in the rich countries of the North), what makes us happy is not new ‘things’, but the quality of our relationships.

My own favourite alternative measure of wellbeing is the notion of Gross Domestic Happiness developed in the kingdom of Bhutan. Believe it or not, the mighty World Bank is currently working with the Government of Bhutan on the operationalisation of GDH. The Wongasnit ashram in Thailand, where I have just spent the last two weeks, is one of a number of organisations that will co-host a conference on the whole subject later this year in Thailand. It is good to see the ecovillage family increasingly leaving the safe margins of alternative society and coming out to share what it has learned with the mainstream.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era