Money versus happiness

Image: See Ming Lee, WikicommonsI try and avoid philosophy, my education was very science based and I am much more comfortable relying on an evidence based approach to life. However, there are times when a more philosophical approach is needed. 

The current Government and in fact all the major political parties, are searching for economic growth where success or failure is measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product). GDP is being used as an indicator of the overall health of the economy, is reported on quarterly and is compared across the world. 

As conservationists we are constantly being asked what impact our activities will have on the “growth” agenda, witness the discussions surrounding HS2 where 21 ancient woods will be lost but there will be a £1.5billion pa boost to the West Midlands economy. The problem is that the numbers are so big and at such a large scale it is difficult to see how the comparison can be effectively undertaken, apart from which few people understand how the calculations were done. 

Economists talk about people seeking to optimise their own “welfare”, a complex series of personal goods which, if a full definition was followed, could only truly be characterised by the individual. Unfortunately too often money is used as a synonym for welfare and thus at both policy and personal level the theory is that we all seek to increase the amount of money we have. The belief appears to be that increased growth in the economy will lead to increased money in our pockets which will automatically lead to increased happiness, but in a mature democracy is this really true and can the search for growth be counterproductive? 

Image: Steve Amstrup, WikicommonsThe sound of bird song in my garden in the morning makes me feel happy. I will never travel to see a polar bear (far too cold!) but the knowledge that there are still bears wandering across the ice makes me think the world is still a good place to be. But how do you put a monetary valuation on any of this? The National Ecosystems Assessment looked at valuing our ecosystems and the Ecosystems Market Task Force has sought to find mechanisms to make money out of nature. Later this year the Natural Capital Committee will produce its first State of Natural Capital Committee report to assess where our natural capital committee is being used unsustainably. 

But it does make you wonder if, philosophically, we are just looking at this issue from the wrong end and that perhaps it would be easier and more readily understandable if we just followed the example of Bhutan and ditched GDP and instead measured Gross National Happiness.

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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13 Responses to Money versus happiness

  1. Kay Haw says:

    Thank you so much for all your fantastic comments!

  2. J.Allcock says:

    Agree entirely with most of the reactions above. Money and the contiuous, relentless drive for economic growth is tantamount to the scripture’s quote that the ”love of money is the root of evil”. This is as true for communities and nations as it is for individuals. What we still have in terms of woodland and countryside should be preserved for what it brings in spiritual and mental health both of which should be at a premium in our sometimes rather sad society.

  3. Philosophy and science are not mutually exclusive activities which this post handsomely proves. However something as nebulous and impossible of quantifying as happiness cannot really replace the reductionist cost-benefit analysis or escape the coils and snares of the cash nexus. However trying to reduce everything to a fiscal equivalent is the harsh and vicious work of the heartless accountant that leads to an instrumentalist reductionism that strips the life, beauty and wonder out of the world. At heart this is an ethical question that requires the generation of an ethics of responsibility that firmly links the ‘second nature’ of humanity’s social world to the natural ‘first nature’ of the natural world in which it is embedded and emphasises humanity’s special role (as aware animals) in taking responsibility for all of nature.

  4. This is an excellent article and I find myself in total agreement with it. The comments here are also interesting, particularly the one from Roderick Leslie, which really made me think a lot harder about my response. Overall though, I still agree with the philosophy behind the article and I have posted it to conservation groups on Facebook, on my own Timeline and on Twitter.

    I would like it to reach a wider audience and wonder if the Woodland Trust would agree to allowing me to post it on CareTo, Naturally I would give total credit to the Woodland Trust and Frances Winder.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Hello, sorry this is a slightly late reply. But if you still want to repost this on CareTo please feel free. Thank you for your support!

  5. Terry Quinn says:

    According to a DEFRA statement in 2011 , nature is worth £4 billion pounds to the economy, so how much more would it be worth to the economy if we did more to encourage biodiversity and increase, maintain and protect our fast disappearing habitats? We are not alone on this planet, but in a not too distant future we could very well be! I would ask our government one question, when all the plants and animals have gone, will we be able to eat money? If not the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about!

  6. Peter Wilding says:

    A good post, though it doesn’t go quite far enough. There are some other valid points to consider here:

    A society focussed entirely or mainly on wealth creation (measured by GDP) will tend to develop too wide an inequality between its richest and poorest members. Recent research suggests this inequality gap is not only counterproductive to general wellbeing, but even makes the richer members of society less happy.

    There are compelling arguments from physics that economic growth will have to stop one day – and perhaps sooner than one might think. Resource constraints may stop growth. But if this does not happen, there is a more fundamental obstacle. The chain of reasoning is that economic growth depends on continually increasing energy use; and that even with (hypothetical and unachievable) 100% efficiency in utilising energy sources – of any kind – the end product, after we’ve used the energy for any purpose, is waste heat. Unlimited economic growth would therefore produce enough waste heat to make the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. This argument comes from (and this site is an interesting source for much else on related topics).

    Now, how exactly do we get politicians to understand this and work towards a future in which happiness counts for more than GDP, and in which growth has to taper off and cease but in a planned and orderly way?

  7. Peter Kyte says:

    Unfortunately, politicians measure their perceived success or otherwise by the magic term “growth”. Where will the economic benefit of thousands of more homes built on flood plains when they are flooded out every year and the owners cannot get house insurance. Where will the economic benefit be found when we have to import the majority of our food and be held to the vagaries of the world market for our supplies. “Growth” is an illusion that politicians are chained to, like a opium addict to the pipe. Unfortunately the decisions that politicians make impact both human and animal populations with no right of response for the latter and not much heed taken of the former.

  8. Sam C says:

    Great Post!

  9. the buddhists say that happy/sad equation is an illusion and we should focus on being! Me, I find the seesaw of mood even harder to work out than GDP and the older I get, the harder are the answers to the economic versus ecological questions. Personally I wish Mankind would curb itself and give more room for everything else to reproduce

  10. Roderick Leslie says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head – not just you, but conservationists and foresters all suffer from the same problem – and aren’t always terribly sympathetic to the views and feelings of their fellow non-professionals. That’s why large swathes of the nature conservation movement are having as much difficulty getting their heads round what happened over forest sales as the hardened, blinkered monetarists who can’t see beyond the cubic metres of timber in a tree.

    The irony is that in reality the lovely things about woods we can’t value eventually do come back to connect with hard economics: it really comes down to what sort of a country we all want to live in and the response to the forests sales showed that hundreds of thousands of people recognise there is more to life than money – and, as you’ll know in WT, enjoying woods is far more than a few hours of leisure time: whether you are a mountain biker or a daily dog walker the woods and forests you enjoy are a crucial part of your life and perhaps even your personal identity, the way you see yourself.

    So where does the economics come in ? Well, look at what NW Regional Development Agency were doing when they invested £50m in woodlands around Manchester and Liverpool: they did it because in selling the NW as a place to do business they continually ran up against overseas prejudice that the NW is a post-industrial wasteland. In all the focus on hard economics our leaders need to be careful they don’t end up portraying the UK as the sort of scummy, low rent country where no sane international business person would want live and bring up children.

  11. That sums up precisely how I feel, Frances. As I get older, material things seem so much less important (except for my books – I really need my books) and my relationship with the earth, whilst it has always been important, seems now to be even more so. It’s not just about happiness, it’s about a deep feeling of belonging that Wordsworth summed up as “A sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Ancient woodlands are as important a part of our heriitage as our ancient buildings. Image the outcry if the government planned to pull down Stonehenge or York Minster to build a road or a rail link! Our woodlands deserve the same protection.

  12. Alex Jones says:

    Science will never have all the answers, but philosophy added in will. When people pursue sustainability they will only find the answers through applying philosophy with the science. The best people to look towards when dealing with sustainability are indigenous peoples, who won’t be using the scientific method but apply the same approaches as science in a different way for the same results.

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