My newsletter is back!

When I went for my ‘blogging sabbatical‘ in August 2016, I put my newsletter on hold.

Now I am back with fresh energy and ideas, and the newsletter is a great place to share some things that are not yet on the blog. To sign up, please fill the form here.

Few promises from my side: you won’t get emails more often than every six to eight weeks, and can unsubscribe anytime. And of course: no spam! That would be a waste of time for both of us.

Ready for a little dose of happiness straight to your mailbox? Leave me your details!

 

Schermafbeelding 2018-01-17 om 13.22.55

What would a once-per-50-years newspaper say on happiness?

I recently came across a brief podcast by the US National Public Radio (NPR) with an intriguing question.

Some of us have quit reading the news, as the endless updates about conflicts, natural disasters, political in-fighting, and abuse scandals make us depressed. (Sports news could balance it down a bit though, depending whether your team wins or loses).

The news is about what is uncommon – hence it is news – and often these are bad developments. In a time of online news and push notifications, we can get ‘new’ news in the time it takes to load a few tweets. As a result, we are a lot better informed about conflicts and disasters in many places we otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. But it might also make us lose the big picture on what is going well in the world.

That’s why the NPR jumped on an idea of Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie. The two are affiliated with Oxford University, and run a number-lovers’ paradise: Our World In Data. They came up with the idea: what would a newspaper consider as headline news if it appeared only once per fifty years?

 

The 50-year newspaper

The newspaper the NPR and Our World In Data made appeared on 1 January 2018, exactly fifty years after the previous edition of 1968.

It contains some bad news…

  • Is It Just Me, Or Is It Hot In Here? (on climate change, as human-induced greenhouse gas emissions rocket)
  • Humans to Animals: Drop Dead! (on biodiversity loss; the number of terrestrial animals declined by 60%)

… but also shows some of the great progress made in the last fifty years:

  • Poor No More (on poverty, which feel from 60% to 10% of the world population)
  • Child Mortality Plummets (in 1968, 1 out of 6 children died before their fifth birthday. With healthcare improving, it now is 1 out of 22)
  • Blame It On The Grain (on undernourishment; the population share with hunger fell from about one third to 12%)

 

What about happiness?

But what would the headline on happiness be in the paper of January 2018?

Fifty years after 1968, these are the headlines the newspaper should run:

  • Have You Jumped Out The Rat Race Yet? (on the growing awareness of people that they are in charge of their own well-being, but that they need to make important and difficult life style choices to achieve it)
  • Emerging Economies Show Massive Happiness Gains (the progress in fighting poverty, child mortality, and undernourishment across developing countries comes with a happiness dividend)
  • Free At Last! (on the transition towards democracy and self-determination in many countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and former colonies)
  • Politicians and Bosses Say: Your Happiness Is My Command (on the growing attention for happiness and well-being as a policy issue for the state, and corporations increasing attention to happiness at work)
  • Materialism Out, Experiences In! (on the gradually changing habit of people to value and spend money on experiences such as trips or time with friends, and a lesser emphasis on consumer goods)

 

Bonus: what the 1968 papers actually said about happiness, referring to a creepily titled Beatles song.

american-rifleman-happiness-is-a-warm-gun_01-1

 

Set your Big Goal for 2018 and beyond

Just a few days to go, and 2018 is starting.

The last few days of the year are useful to look back in gratitude at what you achieved and experienced this year. At the same time, you can also look forward and determine if there are any Big Goals you would like to work on next year. New Year’s Resolutions, anyone?

Do you need some inspiration? We often can find it in people who do truly big things. That’s why I would like to share Jaco Ottink‘s inspiring story today. I met him a few weeks ago, and his talk prompted me to write about his Big Goal.

Seven Summits

Jaco Ottink climbing Mount Everest. Source: Beyond Summits, www.beyondsummits.nl

Jaco Ottink climbing Mount Everest. Source: Beyond Summits, www.beyondsummits.nl

Jaco dedicated twenty years of his life to his dream: climb the highest mountains of each continent. By 2015, he was almost there: he had the highest peaks of the North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australasia, and Antarctica covered. Only one summit was keeping him from realising his dream: the 8,848 meters of Sagarmatha in the borderlands between Nepal and Tibet – better known as Mount Everest. Getting there would make him the ninth Dutchman to climb these Seven Summits.

In Jaco’s story, there are three key lessons: preparation, perseverance, and setting the right goal.

Preparation

Step one of achieving your Big Goal is preparation. If you want to climb the Mount Everest, you need to be top fit. In Jaco’s case, it required months and months of training: running, weight-lifting, and lots more, for 25 hours per week.

And every single detail matters, so the gear had to be top notch too. You want to make sure that your sleeping bag and layers of clothes actually keep you warm when spending a lot of time below zero degrees. (Keep clothes in your sleeping bag, to prevent them from freezing in the tent). And between an ice hammer of 400 or 800 grammes, the best choice is obvious – every gramme of weight needs to make it to 8848 meters.

Perseverance

Without perseverance, you cannot achieve a Big Goal. When trying something as demanding as the Mount Everest, you inevitably will have setbacks. So, if he couldn’t train one day for some reason, he gathered the courage to do it double next day.

Support will be needed to persevere. Jaco told us his eyes almost froze one hour away from the top, and he felt he might not be able to reach the summit safely. It was the support of his sherpa that convinced him to go on – without him, he’d fail to meet his Big Goal.

Set the right goal

The notion of perseverance is also visible in Jaco’s definition of success: achieving something beyond your current means. But there’s more in it: to achieve a Big Goal, you must be sure you set the right one.

What is the goal of a mountain climber? Achieve the summit, you might say. But think again, it isn’t. The real goal is to return back safely, as unfortunately doesn’t happen to all who set off to climb Mount Everest. Hence, sometimes the right call might be to return to safety and abandon the expedition.

And what is your goal?

I gather most of you have more mundane ambitions than climbing Mount Everest. As Jaco tells his audience, your Big Goal could also be something to make you happy and proud in your daily life, such as spending enough quality time with your family (he is now a part-time inspirational speaker running a firm called Beyond Summits, part time stay at home dad). His next Big Goals might be a bit far off for most of us: he aims to travel to the North Pole, and to inspire 1,000,000 people with his story and workshops.

My own Big Goal is already a bit closer to the type of things you might have in mind: my objective is to learn Polish fluently. Not an easy one, given the complicated pronunciation, grammar and vocab of this Slavic language. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be a Big Goal. I have a few more years to go, but with preparation, perseverance, and maybe a little tweaking with the right goal, I should get there.

These are our goals – what is yours?

The unexpected ripe age of happiness

Life is a trap.

When you’re young, you’ve time and energy, but no money.

When you’re an adult, you’ve money and energy, but no time.

And in old age, you’ve finally have both money and time – but then your energy is gone.

At least, that’s how the online joke has it. Laughs aside, it also triggers an interesting question: what is the happiest stage of our life?

The age of happiness

The website Hospice End of Life Care is convinced there is. They collected data from various surveys (and kindly shared them in the neat infographic below!) showing that old age isn’t as gloomy as one might think. Beyond the cliches about lonely and depressed grandpa, the elderly often have lower levels of stress. They perform better on well-being indicators such as healthy eating and being energised from social contacts. And they’re even more confident about their looks!

One could cynically think: by the time you’re 70 or 80, you’re happy to be still around. Happiness scientists indeed are quite certain about the correlation of happiness and longevity. For instance, a 2015 study in the United States found that happy people tend to live longer. Compared to ‘very happy’ people, both people who consider themselves ‘pretty happy’ (+6%) and ‘not happy’ (+14%) had higher risks of death in the reference period.

Life expectancy is rising, and the share of the population above 65 grows ever larger. In the United States (15%, relatively low for the Western world), Germany (21%), and Japan (27%), over 65s represent an increasingly large share. So, the sample of over 65s grow and grow, and these figures are average across a wide range of values.

Are all older people happier?

It is not as simple as saying that all older people are happier everywhere around. In some geographies, that is indeed the case: people tend to be happy in their 20s, go down a bit in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, before picking up again in their 60s and 70s, resulting in a kind of U-shape.

Schermafbeelding 2017-12-03 om 20.13.44

However, their infographic at the end of the post uses American survey data. Globally, the US is a bit a different beast then many other countries. The World Happiness Report of 2015 studied the matter in some detail, as shown in the image just above. While the U-shape appears both across the North America and Australia/New Zealand (NANZ) region and East Asia, these are the exceptions worldwide.

In all other regions, happiness either stabilises at some point between people’s 30s and 50s, or continues to reduce. The reduction effect is strongest in the Central and Eastern Europe and former Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE & CIS in the graph).

Less stress and better rested

That, however, is not the full story. On some indicators for the positive emotions that underly happiness, older people seem to perform better, even where they are not among the happiest groups overall.

For instance, in many world regions they tend to smile and laugh more than other people. In old age, depression and especially stress levels fall far below their peak, around middle age. And in many regions, the elderly are among the best rested groups! Maybe those low energy levels are a just a myth, and we do have something to look forward to when growing older.

 The full infographic

HappinessIGFULLNOV

December, a month of kindness and happiness

It’s December again. Isn’t there a better time of the year to inspire happiness and kindness?

Random acts of kindness (and even those are more planned than random) greatly contribute to happiness. A thank you or a smile never hurt, and don’t even cost a thing!

As scientists have found, being kind or giving to others can result in moments of happiness. You could say that giving to others is both an altruistic and an egoistic act. As a giver, you benefit from it as well: giving simply makes you feel good!

The grass-roots movement Action for Happiness strongly believes in the power of, well, actions for happiness. We can’t always control how we feel, but taking positive actions can help us to feel happier.

In the season of advent candles and calendars counting down to Christmas, they came up with this amazing kindness calendar. Click the calendar to enlarge it and have a look at their tips. Feel inspired to have a kind December, and spread feelings of happiness around you!

Action for Happiness' Kindness Calendar. Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/kindness-calendar

Action for Happiness’ Kindness Calendar (click to enlarge). Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/kindness-calendar

How’s life in 2017? Social divisions result in lower happiness, finds OECD

How’s life?

It’s not only mother or your colleague who’s asking from time to time. Policymakers are interested, too.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) every year comes with thick studies to answer the question. Earlier this month, the 2017 edition was published, mapping how people in OECD countries feel about a bunch of things: jobs, health, safety, life satisfaction, and so on. Altogether, the datasets cover eleven broad indicators of the OECD Better Life Index.

These studies are important. Data is power, and having information on how people feel matters a great deal to making the world a better place. As the OECD says it: it helps achieving well-being for all.

So, how do we feel?

The answer is 6.5.

That is, on a ten-point scale, is the average life satisfaction for 2017, marginally lower than the 6.7 score shown in 2005. The small decline probably results of the interaction of a few steps forward and a few step backwards. For instance:

    • Incomes and earnings went up, by 8% and 7% respectively. But inequality remains strong: 1/3 of people would go in poverty if they had to miss three months of salary.
    • The employment rate went up by 1.3 percentage points, and working hours improved in most countries. But long-term unemployment got worse in half of the countries.
    • Since 2005, the number of smokers reduced from 22% to 18%. But the number of obese people increased from 22% to 24%.
    • Education levels see strong improvements. But voter turnout and trust in government decline in more than half the countries.

Well-being for all

A large part of the 2017 report is dedicated to equality. While debates about inequality are often about wealth and income, the OECD believes that inequality is felt in every area of our lives.

For instance, the richest 20% are advantaged in many well-being indicators:

  • Rich people spent 11 times more time on social activities than poor people
  • The top-20% has 5-fold higher household income than the bottom-20%
  • Life satisfaction is twice as high
  • And poorer people tend die a lot younger: the standard deviation in age at death is 13 years

And as a special section of the report shows, migrants particularly tend to be worse off.

This all matters, because more equal societies tend to be happier ones. While the situation is a bit scattered, there is some correlation between income equality and life satisfaction. In OECD data, the correlation is even stronger when inequality is plotted against the broad well-being indicators.

The American Dream vs Janteloven

Take the examples of the United States and Denmark. If you are successful in life, you can have all the American dream. The US is a ‘winners’ society: it is an extremely rewarding environment to build a business and prove yourself. Income taxes are low, and healthcare and social security provisions are bare. At the level of society, the payoff in happiness is not too high. America ranks 14th in the World Happiness Report, with an average below 7 out of 10. Not that great, one might say.

Denmark, to the contrary, is a society that also wants to make ‘losers’ thrive. It offers a strong social security system, that’s even a factor contributing to high happiness. Denmark also wants to offer a good life to people that ‘fail’ in life. Indicative for the Danish way of looking at success is the ‘Janteloven’, or Law of Jante. Janteloven is a list of ten rules that basically boil down to: don’t imagine you’re someone, we’re all the same, and you’re not worth anything. Though, depressingly, the sense of equality it instills helps contributing to a balanced, and happy, society. Denmark often ranks on top of the happiness list, finding itself back at 2 in 2017.

Data to learn from

Either way, Americans and Denmark are both as they are. Even cultural differences in our thinking about inequality could affect our happiness. Beyond books and articles about hygge, reports like the OECD one help to learn from each other. It feels naive to write this down, but the United States can become a little bit more like Denmark. And among the wealth of data, Denmark can also find some inspiration in how people in the US pursue happiness.

View of Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

View of Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

Basic income, revisited: the Finns are on it!

Until recently, I lived and worked in Belgium, and benefitted from a benevolent state taking care of me. I received lunch vouchers for around €100 to €150 a month. Plus ‘ecological vouchers’ for organic products or train travel. Plus ‘sports and culture’ vouchers, for, well, sports and culture. My monthly contribution to the public insurance fund came in at a very modest €8,00, and my own contribution for most treatments was fairly low. Had I lost my job, there would be an expansive social security system where I could get support. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Well, I spent my time in one of the most heavily taxed countries of the world. Relatedly, Belgium ranks on top of the list across the OECD as for the labour costs – income tax, and employees and employers’ social security contributions. Over half of the wage costs of a Belgian employer account for income tax and social security contributions. Or in other words: it costs over €4,000 to have an employee with a take home pay of €2,000.

Tax wedges in OECD countries. Source: OECD

Tax wedges in OECD countries. Source: OECD

Basic income, revisited

Even if you agree with the noble goals, and despite the correlation between high taxes and happiness, wouldn’t it be a lot better to remove this money pumping function of the state? If a tax reform increased  my net salary by the same amount, I’d have happily foregone all my vouchers and started paying an amount closer to the real cost of my insurance. Sweet and simple!

Last year I already wrote about the possibility of using basic income as a tool to simplify social spending. At the time – just after the Swiss voted ‘no’ in a referendum on the subject – I saw the possibility to get rid of series of tax breaks and charges that have little more effect than creating employment for tax collectors on the one side and tax consultants on the other.

Two things made me revisit the issue. Firstly, the policy discussion on basic income has advanced: more studies have been produced, and Finland’s experiment is underway. Secondly, we are getting a better picture on how basic income can help us solving social problems around globalisation and automation (the robots are coming, and they may give us the cash we need!). Let me take the second issue in a later piece, and look at the policy discussion now.

The Finnish experiment

Finland’s national experiment with basic income launched in January 2017, and contrary to other recent tests has nationwide coverage. 2000 selected Finns now get a monthly sum of €560 – no questions asked. That’s a modest amount, compared to the €2,500 national average wage. It’s not universal basic income per se, though. The participants are all unemployed; typical employees and billionaires don’t get basic income. Kela, the Finnish social security body that organises the experiments, deducts basic income from other social spending, so that basic income mostly replaces existing tools. Despite these limits in scope, the basic income is fully unconditional: participants are free to spend the money any way they like.

While Kela is clear that conclusions will only be reported after the end of the experiment, initial feedback confirms earlier anecdotal evidence that basic income increases the sense of freedom and happiness. Vice went to speak to Juha Järvinen, an artist who feels basic income allows him to focus on what he enjoys: creating the shaman drums that he sells. For Järvinen, the money is not the main advantage of the experiment: “you need to be a magician to survive” on €560 a month in Finland. Instead, it’s the fact that the employment office is not at his back all the time that gives him a sense of liberation. The basic income provides a first basis that makes it easier to undertake the project he likes. He recognises that with this level of spending a beneficiary couldn’t simply be lazy and do nothing, as some adversaries of basic income fear.

Left-wing and right-wing basic income

The Finnish government is a centre-right one, and this is visible in the design of the experiment. Typically, many proponents of basic income are centre-left, focusing on the benefits basic income offers to personal freedom and development, and quality of life. From a left-wing perspective, basic income is about citizens’ rights and distribution of state means. Basic income could then be a tool to ensure that citizens have equal possibilities, and that people of poorer or minority groups are not worse off.

The centre-right perspective would rather emphasise simplification and reduction of state spending. Basic income could replace up to 100 tax incentives in the Finnish case. This is also a key condition to ensure that basic income remains affordable, they argue.

Can we pay it?

That begs the critical question: can we afford basic income? The low Finnish basic income is set up with affordability in mind. It’s not an easy question. The answer of the advocacy group, the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), boils down to ‘it depends‘: if we narrowly redistribute existing benefits, it could work. However, if we maintain all existing benefits and then add a broader basic income for everybody to live comfortable, governments will struggle to find the means.

Is basic income better than current social spending?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) weighed into the debate via a study outlining a slightly different question: does basic income reduce poverty and increase equality? The study started with the observation that social expenditure is targeted in wildly different ways. As of 2013, the 20% richest in the average OECD country benefitted only marginally less from cash transfers than the 20% poorest. In most countries, the poor obviously benefitted more from transfers than the rich. But in a few countries, particular subsidies worked out in a net transfer from everybody else to the rich, including Greece, Italy, Poland, and Portugal.

Beneficiaries of cash transfers in OECD countries, 2013. Source: OECD

Beneficiaries of cash transfers in OECD countries, 2013. Source: OECD

So, does basic income do a better job? According to the OECD, it probably doesn’t. If basic income were to be set at the level of current spending -  a narrow basic income – it would remain below the poverty line across all OECD countries, sometimes staying far below. Not surprisingly, if you consider that at present only a share of the population benefits from public spending. As such, basic income would risk distributing from the poor to all. Then, it could draw similar criticism as some education grants do: funds paid for by the baker and the electrician to finance the career investment of the lawyer’s son.

Redistribution from the poor to all

Looking at modeling of how basic income could work in Finland, France, Italy, and the UK, the study finds that a narrow basic income indeed would not reduce poverty. Rather than sharing wealth, the changes in public expenditure would redistribute poverty along different lower-income groups. As such, simply pooling existing benefits and reallocating them as basic income is not the right solution. But there might be other ways – maybe robots could come to rescue? That, however, is a topic for another post. See you later!

The Netherlands: small happy cities in a ‘madly cool country’

The population of the Netherlands is two-faced. When we are among ourselves, we like to complain: about our politicians, the weather, taxes, the healthcare system, declines in fixed jobs, and immigration. In this year’s elections, parties with populist policies won over 25% of the vote.

While we tend to be pessimistic about society as a whole, most people are very satisfied with their own lives. Despite our complaints, the Netherlands is one of the happiest countries of the world. Indeed, when we speak to foreigners, we paint a proud picture of our country. We speak of the Netherlands as a country that is hard-working but not too serious, innovative, well-organised, and with high standards of life. PM Rutte’s daily job is to tell Dutchmen they live in a ‘waanzinnig gaaf land’, which means something as a ‘madly cool country’. A Financial Times feature just before the elections broadly supported the claim.

Indeed, if we look at the stats, it is fair to say ‘The Netherlands second’, as the viral video presenting the country to President Trump did this year did. Dutch economist Mathijs Bouman mapped the Netherlands’ performance on a range of indicators, comparing various rankings on competitiveness, innovation and human development. His conclusion? The Netherlands is the best country of the world, second only to… Switzerland. Only when the World Happiness Report was added, the Netherlands jumped over the United States to second place.

The Netherlands second. Source: Mathijs Bouman, http://mathijsbouman.nl/nederland-is-het-beste-land-ter-wereld-op-zwitserland-na/

The Netherlands second. Source: Mathijs Bouman, http://mathijsbouman.nl/nederland-is-het-beste-land-ter-wereld-op-zwitserland-na/

Happiness: the last frontier

With good scores on so many levels, it is time to reach the last frontier: make society even happier. And the Dutch are getting to business: over the last years, society’s happiness and alternative indicators have gained more attention in the Dutch public debate. Last year, the Dutch Parliament supported steps to create a ‘Monitor Broad Well-being’, to better assess quality of life in the Netherlands.

A happiness atlas

Researchers and marketeers are also spending time on the topic. Recently, a study crowned the central Netherlands town of Ede the happiest city of the Netherlands.

The Atlas of Municipalities, prepared with the support of the Happiness Research Centre of the University of Rotterdam, compared happiness levels in the 50 largest towns. Mid-sized towns like Ede, Apeldoorn and Gouda rank to the top, while most of the larger cities like Groningen, Amsterdam and The Hague are on the bottom of the table. Rotterdam, the second-largest city, even closes the list of 50. The map below outlines the top-10 in turquoise, and the bottom 1o in red.

This map shows cities ranked 1-10 (in turquoise) and 41-50 (in red) in the Atlas of Municipalities. Source: Trouw, based on data of the Atlas. https://www.trouw.nl/home/het-geluk-is-te-vinden-in-een-middelgrote-stad-ede~aeb4553a/

This map shows cities ranked 1-10 (in turquoise) and 41-50 (in red) in the Atlas of Municipalities. Source: Trouw, based on data of the Atlas.
https://www.trouw.nl/home/het-geluk-is-te-vinden-in-een-middelgrote-stad-ede~aeb4553a/

What is happiness, anyway?

Let’s dig in a little bit deeper into what this all means. First of all, what is happiness anyway? For the purposes of the study, it is “the extent to which an individual find satisfaction in their own life as a whole”. ‘Happiness’ is then measured via three metrics: an overall judgement of a respondent’s life satisfaction as a whole, the extent to which one is a happy human being, and the extent to which one felt happy in the last four weeks. Ede overall scored best at this, with 89% of the local population scoring at least an average of 7 out of 10 among the three.

Second, how is Ede different than others? The researchers identified seven factors that account for the differences in happiness levels across Ede and the other cities. These, include the size and composition of the population, the employment rate, health, religion, and the attractiveness of life in the city. That however doesn’t mean that Ede is the only city doing well on those factors, or on happiness. Overall, smaller cities tend to perform better than bigger ones: here, life is less chaotic, while there is more on offer than on the countryside.

Marginal differences

The differences between cities appear quite marginal and probably are not statistically significant. 17 out of the 50-sample score 88 or 89%, no fewer than 42 are in the 85-89% bucket, and even number last Rotterdam houses 82% of happy people. As such, the meaning of being ranked first, second, or even thirtieth, is fairly limited.

Other indices in the Atlas convey this point even more. The happiness index is only an annual theme of the Atlas, which annually compares cities on a range of metrics. Some of these metrics are pooled into indices, for instance mapping ‘attractiveness’ and social-economic performance.

The ‘attractiveness’ index aims to compare how attractive cities are as a place to live for the Dutch population. It looks at factors such as the jobs within range of the city, the share of owned and pre-war homes, distance to nature, and the culinary and cultural offer. The social-economic index, as the name says, looks at elements like employment, the population share on welfare and with low education levels, and the poverty rate.

Both rankings offer a radically different overview than the happiness ranking: ‘Happy’ Ede finds itself back at the 15th place as for its social-economic performance. ‘Unhappy’ Rotterdam is found a more attractive place to live than Ede (respectively 17th and 22nd on the attractiveness index).

Spotting strengths and weaknesses

The takeaway? Indices help to spot cities’ strengths and weaknesses, especially when you dig in the underlying data via the OECD-type dashboard approach the Atlas offers. But different measurements give different results. While it is fun to publish such rankings and see how our cities perform, one cannot a lot of value to small differences or annual movements in the Netherlands. And the key message remains that life in the Netherlands is good. We can be among 82% of happy fellow citizens, or among 89% in Ede. In this sense, the Dutch do live in a ‘madly cool country’, as Prime Minister Rutte said.

The World after GDP

Guano mining at the Chincha island off the Peruvian coast. Source: Wikipedia.

Guano mining at the Chincha island off the Peruvian coast. Source: Wikipedia.

Guano – basically bird dung with an exceptionally high quality as fertiliser – was a highly demanded product. Mainly found on Pacific islands off the coast of Peru it was a popular agricultural fertiliser since the 1840s. From the 1850s, demand sky-rocketed, and competition for guano deposits was fierce. It was guano that was at the basis of the United States imperialist tendencies. The Guano Island act of 1856 allowed US citizens to take control of unclaimed islands.

Why is this relevant, and what does it have to do with GDP?

Guano soon made the people mining it rich. But the environment suffered: it took few decades to exhaust all reservers and leave the islands containing deposits bare. Favouring short-term economic gain over long-term environmental sustainability destroyed the islands.

Guano is just one example, but fits a long human tradition of discovering, using, and then exhausting precious resources, without batting an eye about the environmental consequences – very often driven by the desire to achieve economic growth and increase GDP. But compared to the 1850s, we have a lot better understanding of how these patterns go, and a larger awareness that alternative strategies are possible.

The World Before and During GDP

The World After GDP by Lorenzo Fioramonti. Editor: Polity books

The World After GDP by Lorenzo Fioramonti. Editor: Polity books

The World After GDP, a new book by Lorenzo Fioramonti, offers some of thoughts to escape this trap. It starts by the notion that today, with the exceptions of few isolated and traditional populations, human beings above all are consumers. Private consumption is what is at the basis of GDP and keeps economies going.

GDP however has a bit different origin: it started as a tool to help the English king and French sovereigns in the 17th and 18th century determine how much tax their populations could sustain. The modern institution of GDP developed as of the 1930s, when economic Simon Kuznets helped the US administration understand the national income. Over time, GDP evolved from a metric to see the size of the economy to a goal per se.

Revise GDP, but don’t dethrone in favour of another flawed indicator

The beyond GDP argument that Fioramonti also makes has already been widely discussed on this blog. Fioramonti discusses, and welcomes, the many contenders of GDP. He dedicates some attention to the Human Development Index, the OECD’s Better Life Index, Gross National Happiness, the Social Progress Index, and more. He also notes that the criticism has resulted to some top-down changes to GDP, such as statistical revisions to add up the black market to national economy. The change to consider investment in research as a benefit rather than a cost is another example.

The Nordic leaders (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) poking fun at US President Trump and Saudi king Salman

The Nordic leaders (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) poking fun at US President Trump and Saudi king Salman. What if they would lead the G7?

Ultimately, Fioramonti very sensibly states that all those alternative indicators, like GDP itself, only display one approach to wellbeing. Therefore he speaks out against replacing GDP by another, again inherently subjective and likely flawed, indicator. At the same time, these sections are full of careful reflection on the beyond GDP revolution, and contain interesting ideas. For instance, his mapping of alternative G7 is provided an interesting narrative. The strongest 7 countries of sustainable development does not contain any of the largest economies, but brings Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Ireland, South Korea, Chile and New Zealand together. The G7 of happiest countries includes Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. A G7 lead by these countries would be, well, a lot of different.

A bottom-down revolution?

Apart from the top-down changes, Fioramonti also sees a bottom-up pressure on GDP. This is where his book stretches beyond the usual beyond GDP literature. While he has a point that there is an increasing community of ‘de-growth’, authentic consumption, local produce and peer-to-peer services, the question is how much we really should read into this. Does someone who drinks a regional craft beer really has his lower contribution to GDP in mind when he sips away, or does he simply value the idea of getting something from close by?

And, isn’t there a lot in the ‘sharing economy’ that has little to do with sharing? AirBnB and Uber, referred to at multiple occasions by Fioramonti, do not only have positive effects. For instance, in reducing the cost of a car ride in New York, Uber drives people out of the metro and into congested traffic. AirBnB makes it easier for people to travel, but creates it own ‘buy to rent on AirBnB’ market, pushing residents out of inner cities and seeing them replaced by one-time consumers. Modern technologies thus simply are used to generate returns in a more modern way. While the book is well thought through and a worthy read, it may stretch the argument a bit to call this a post-GDP world.

Happiness & the City

How can growing cities ensure the well-being of their citizens isn’t sacrificed in their growth? That was one of the questions I had in mind when delivering a guest lecture on happiness to a group of students from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The students, enrolled in a programme on city development, were specialising in ‘Urban Development, Wealth and Well-Being’. Studies of happiness seem to have gotten a lot more common in the few years I’ve been out of university!

My presentation was centred on the argument that the well-being and happiness of citizens should be a leading objective in urban planning and city development. Politicians and policy-makers should use existing regional indicators, such as the OECD Better Life Index or the Social Progress Index (SPI), to monitor their performance. Comparing scores with benchmarks of their peer group can help spot weaknesses.

For instance, the Brussels region has a high GDP, but is doing worse on many other progress indicators, as the slides in the deck below show. The South Holland region of Rotterdam and The Hague ranks highly in the SPI, but shows weaknesses in education, environmental quality, and some health and safety indicators.

Students in the group seems to see the arguments, but also had critical questions: can you objectively measure what happiness or well-being is? Can you decide for someone else how much education or the environment counts for their happiness? And can we trust politicians using well-being data fairly? Or would they simply use it as a narrative to get support, without doing the actual work?

I ended the workshop with several case studies, asking the students how they would advise mayors to resolve policy issues. They had some creative solutions: for instance, one of the case studies described a dynamic city that attracts so many people that house prices saw massive increases. One, admittedly complicated, suggestion was to cap rent prices so normal people could afford to live there. This case study was meant to be similar to London. Another creative idea by the group was to build a satellite city at a reasonable distance. In this way, people could enjoy well-being in their place of residence, while also enjoying the dynamic life that London has to offer. One thing became clear: the next generation of urban planners will be thinking about happiness in their cities.

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