Is Effectiveness Killing Happiness?

Development practitioners have a very big responsibility. Our job will always affect people.This affirmation is not to increase our self-importance, but rather to make us reflect on how every intervention can affect the course of human lives for many years to come.

As a student, I am increasingly worried about our ‘numerization’ of results. Today, world wide systems work according to the ‘market logic’. As a result, everything can be measured by a given scale, and happiness is no exception.  Happiness reports are highly influenced by Benthams’s work. According to Davies (2015) Betham was a policy maker who decided that political decisions had to be made accountable. In short, he created this concept in order  to convert political decisions into hard, empirical data. He argued that nouns such as ‘goodness’, ‘duty’, ‘mind’ were abstract propositions and that the more abstract these nouns were, the more false perceptions they held. On the other hand, happiness is not about smiling all day and being cheerful; to me, that would be excitement. The Dalai Lama describes it as neutral experience that can bring deep satisfaction.

The happiness report that was released on the 21st of March,  bases its ranking on the economic power and decision making capabilities of each nation. As a result, wealthier countries appear at the top of the table: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. These countries measure happiness through a ‘numerical perspective’. Measuring today’s happiness is made in a non-abstract way. Contrastingly, the video below involves only abstract nouns. There is no clear definition of income, acquisitive power, or social level of  influence.

If you feel the same as I did with this video, it left you feeling like you want  to go out and do the best you can do to help yourself and others. In my opinion, that very heartwarming sensation is what happiness is. That said, my background is not in psychology, so my claim might be biased or even incorrect. However,  I am certain that happiness is not a numerical value.

This statement does not mean to dismiss the Happiness Report. On the contrary, I believe that it is an excellent initiative. However, I do think that the report needs to be more comprehensive and consider alternative ways to measure happiness. When we are trying to transform a society,we can not assume that increasing wealth will necessarily translate into an increase in well-being. For example, let us consider  South Korea of the most amazing countries in terms of economic development, but one of the worst countries in terms of happiness. In the Happiness Report of 2016 South Korea was ranked in the 58th place under ‘happiness’,  but came in second place in highest suicide rates. This proves that the measurement is incomplete and still needs to be  improved further. On the other hand, Jamaica is ranked as the  73th happiest place in the report, but according to WHO, it is the 6th coutry with lowest suicide rates.  I used suicide rates as a counter measure of the Happiness Report as suicide represents ‘depression and unwillingness to live’ and happiness means ‘fulfillment and will to live’.

Overall, my message for you today is to think about what happiness and well being mean to the community you are setting out to assist. Question everything, as there is still so much we do not know. After all, a simple happiness measurement does not reflect the complexity of humanity itself, as happiness is as complex as our nature.

Davies, William (2015) The Happiness Industry. Verso, London. UK.

Marketing & Partnerships (2016)

If you are interested in reading more about development and happiness have a look at these articles:

The Happiness Metric; Happy Life, Sustainable Life; Freedom and Consumption

The Happiness Metric

Photo by Ismael Nieto
Photo by Ismael Nieto

Happiness. Isn’t it the most important thing one can achieve in life? What is a life without happiness? In 2012 the United Nations published the first World Happiness Report, which measures Happiness through GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption. Recently the 2016 World Happiness Report was published, and Denmark was ranked as the most happy country in the world.

I am born and raised in Denmark. So I should have some kind of understanding of leading a happy life, if we shall have any trust in the statistics. In Denmark there is a high tax system which enables every citizen access to free healthcare, free education including university, and a social safety net in case of unemployment. In contrast to many other countries, you can’t buy an education, meaning the education system chooses their students based on merit and not from social class or income. This also enables social mobility and freedom of choice in life.

In terms of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, every person should ideally have this level of well-being. What seems to be the problem is that the economic and social wealth that currently exists in Denmark is based on roughly 200 years of economic growth, and Denmark’s ecological footprint is 5.5 global hectares (gha) per capita. This high ecological footprint in itself is an indicator that everyone simply can’t have this standard of living. How do we, as a global and interconnected society handle these kinds of paradoxical, complex and ethical issues?

The World Happiness Report is supposed to indicate development based on factors other than just GDP, but isn’t the economy still an underlying mechanism in many of the factors that are being measured? How can a poor country have social support, a good healthcare system, and long life expectancy without economic growth? I guess a very central question in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is: how we can ensure fairly, the well-being of everyone without killing our planet? Furthermore if happiness is measured by factors that implies economic growth, how can we make happiness compatible with environmental sustainability?

Happy Life, Sustainable Life


This week we’re looking at the different ideas relating to happiness and a happy life. This will be the starting point to the discussion on the UN Sustainable Development Goals which in themselves hold a potential to put the advancement of human happiness at the center of development. 

We grow up in a passive aggressive system where words such as ‘saving’, ‘austerity’ and ‘amity’ are recognized as synonyms of unhappiness. A system where ‘indulgence’, ‘immoderation’, ‘luxurious’ and ‘individualism’ are in contrast synonymous with happiness.

Yet, is this really happiness? For me, these words have a meaning of success but not happiness, and these two concepts are not synonyms either. There is also this idea of happiness as success, but what happens if you never reach success. Will you never be happy?

I wonder if we need to re-shape our way of thinking, because according to these words above living a luxurious life, without limitation and access to everything, seems to be the way to live at your best. With the way these words tend to evoke ideals of happiness, humans nature becomes focused on consumption. However, according to authors such as Maslow, Fromm and Pieper, the nature of man is to create.

So the first thing I want to define is happiness. This concept begins with Socrates, who defined happiness as the pursuit of values and wisdom. Today, happiness seems to be something more spontaneous rather than complex; an emotion or state rather than something continuous and with a grade of effort. On the other hand, the neurologist Rick Hanson states that the human brain holds onto negativity like velcro,and passes like oil for the positive events because of an evolutionary process. So according to science, it is easier to be unhappy rather than happy if you are not aware and conscious of what you are doing.

The first step to being happy is to slow down a little bit. If your first reactions are along the lines of ‘What?! I’m too busy, I can’t stop.’ Well therein lies the problem. A fast-paced life with stress is not necessarily bad. However, what is bad is not stopping a little bit to analyse the good things that have happened to you along the way. Notice something you enjoy, the smell of coffee, the taste of food, or enjoy two minutes on your way to the classroom to listen to the birds singing. It sounds cheesy but it helps. Happiness is not only a state or an emotion, it is a conscious effort, and we have the ability to dictate our reactions.

So how does achieving happiness relate to sustainability?

Well, sustainability is like happiness. A conscious and continuous effort, and interestingly, many sustainable actions that you can do are also compatible with happiness.

Happiness, and therefore sustainability, can be improved by these few actions:

  • Exercise + riding your bike = happiness for you, and an eco-friendly way to take you from point A to point B. Next time you go somewhere nearby (let’s start with about 5 km) choose to use your bike instead of your car. With the endorphins, you will feel great and you will also be helping the planet by reducing your footprint.
  • Practice thoughtful consumption. Over consumption is messing with the planet and with you. Remember how your brain works. The first thing when you acquire something is a feeling of joy, but this is short-term. It is not your fault it is your brain’s fault. If you are going to spend money, try to spend it on experiences or long-term use. Over-consumption with short-term use is collectively placing an enormous stress on the environment, from production to decomposition.
  • Grow your own food. It has been shown that the more involved in the process of your food consumption the happier you are. Sharing of food and production can help to build a stronger sense of community, which can increase a sense of happiness through belonging.
  • Conscious bathing. This bath conscious strategy is taken from a Zen exercise to notice everything. The purpose is to pay attention to every sensation and action. You notice how much time you spend in freeze mode while the water is running and you are not really using it.
  • Sleep well. Only 1 out of 4 people are able to recover from a long day with 6 hours of sleep. How is sleeping sustainable? Well here is the surprise. If you don’t sleep in complete darkness your body does not produce serotonin, the substance responsible for regulating emotions such as a sense of well- being and happiness. So my recommendation is to make an effort to save energy by turning off your lights and get a better sleep. Also to improve results, stop using your electronic gadgets one hour before your bedtime. Every electronic device emits a light spectrum which confuses our organisms into thinking that it’s still daylight, this delays the production of serotonin. Less serotonin equals less happiness.

To conclude, the next time you are feeling a need to have, or buy ,something, try instead to do something. Get your endorphins pumping by riding your bike, head to the nearest music store, buy a set of brushes to paint or a colouring book, or get seeds to begin your own garden, and take a short but conscious bath. I promise, you will begin to feel better by creating instead of consuming, and helping the planet instead of destroying it.

Marketing & Partnerships (2016)