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Psychology, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Sustainable Happiness

The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is how most nations measure progress and well-being within their borders, but did you know that things like divorce, car accidents, natural disasters, even war are positive for the GDP? They increase spending and production and therefore appear to make life better.

While this isn’t quite a science topic I think it is an important one for us to connect to because there is a lot of scientific research on happiness these days and spending more money, and having more possessions, doesn’t get us to happiness or well being. And it certainly doesn’t get us anywhere near sustainable happiness or sustainable well being. As an example of some of the scientific research, Okbay et al (2016) discovered that there are actually differences in the genomes of individuals who express different levels of subjective well being, including concepts like life satisfaction. Although I was initially surprised by the finding that feelings of well being can be partially genetic it makes sense given that there are genetic links to things like depression and neuroticism (both of which Okbay et al also studied).

Dittmar, bond, Hurst, and Kasser (2014) conducted a meta-analysis (analyzing published studies) of research that examined connections between materialism and well being. This is an area that has seen significant study and typically there is a negative association – the higher you rate the importance of material goods and money the lower your well being is. Dittmar et al found that even after controlling for different income levels and types of materialism this negative relationship remained.

So then, it appears that Robert Kennedy was correct when he pointed out that Gross National Product does not actually include people’s health, education, arts, play, strong relationships, learning, compassion… As Mark Anielski (2007) puts it “the GDP’s ideal economic hero is a chain-smoking, terminal cancer patient going through an expensive divorce whose car is totaled in a 20-car pile-up, as a result of being distracted by his cell phone while munching on a fast-food hamburger” (p. 30). Thus, to me, and to others, it seems obvious that we need an alternative.

Generally speaking within science if we had a theory that matched our data and evidence as poorly as the GDP seems to match what we value in society and in life, we would be searching for alternatives. I just watched Nic Marks Ted Talk about The Happy Planet Index. I post it here as food for thought. Not saying it is the answer, but saying that we need to be asking the questions.


Anielski, M. (2007). The economics of happiness: Building genuine wealth. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Dittmar, H., Bond, R., Hurst, M., & Kasser, T. (2014). The Relationship Between Materialism and Personal Well-Being : A Meta-Analysis, 107(5), 879–924.

Okbay, A., Baselmans, B. M. L., De Neve, J.-E., Turley, P., Nivard, M. G., Fontana, M. A., … Cesarini, D. (2016). Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses. Nature Genetics, 48, 624. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.3552

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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