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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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.