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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.