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The year 1956 was, in many ways, a simpler time. The sound of easy-listening tunes swung through the speakers of stereos, while families lived within their means, enjoyed outings to the cinema and going out with families and close friends. There was no such thing as the Internet or mobile phones, meaning people communicated mostly face-to-face, and televisions were only just becoming available. Supermarkets and malls were rare to non-existent, with most shopping done at the local corner store. Crime rates were low, neighbours were friends, life was slower, gentler and less competitive. It was also the year that levels of happiness reportedly peaked in the US. They have been declining steadily ever since.
According to the World Health Organisation, global suicide rates have increased 60 per cent over the last 50 years. In Australia, there are more than 65,000 attempts every year. Despite being more globally connected than ever before, we are lonely; a US study found that one in four Americans report having nobody to confide in, up from one in 10 just a decade ago. These are terrifying statistics from an unhappy world, and some social commentators argue globalisation is to blame.
In Slow is Beautiful, author Cecile Andrews outlines the link between increasing levels of loneliness and a scarcity of local ties. Andrews connects the current fast-paced American economy to an increase in competitiveness, where it’s hard to find the time or opportunity to make nurturing positive social relationships. More importantly, what she’s seeing is that the localisation movement is a really effective way
of reversing this damaging trend.
The story of Ladakh
For over 500 years the people of the Ladakh region – politically part of India, but culturally more like Tibet – thrived. “Ladakh had been evolving for centuries according to its own values and its own ecosystem,” explains Helena Norberg-Hodge, co-director and producer of The Economics of Happiness, a documentary released in Australia in March 2011. She first visited the area in the early ’70s. “In the modern era there was a huge push from the West – through development – to essentially influence cultures and local economies worldwide,” she says. However, for political reasons, Ladakh remained sealed off from Westernisation until the mid-’70s, which Norberg-Hodge believes is “the main reason why they were among the happiest, healthiest people I had ever encountered.” Since the mid-1970s, the happiness and health of the Ladakhis has been in rapid decline.
“The opening [of Ladakh to foreign trade] happened with a road…and then advertising conventional schooling. The systemic effect of those changes was to destroy the local village economy which was primarily based on farming, but they also had carpenters, blacksmiths, doctors, Buddhist teachers…It wasn’t what we often imagine; there was art and music, dancing, poetry and there was also a lot of theatre in the villages,” says Norberg-Hodge.
“They are probably still among the most vibrant, vital and happy people on the planet, but there’s a huge difference and one of the clear statistics on that is that there’s now a suicide every month, in a culture that basically never knew about suicide a generation before.”
As happened in Ladakh, local communities in Australia and around the world have been profoundly affected by the adoption of a global consumer culture. While increased connectivity has its advantages, such as knowledge sharing and trade opportunities, people are increasingly isolated from their neighbours. This sense of disconnection at the local level is taking its toll, not only on our mental health, but on our planet also.
Globalisation vs localisation
Some say the anti-globalisation argument is outdated, but Norberg-Hodge argues that globalisation and its flow-on effects are very relevant to addressing many of today’s environmental, economic, psychological and personal crises. She is working with the International Society for Ecology and Culture in the UK to encourage localisation through decentralised economic structures that encourage bottom-to-top planning for a healthier environment and a healthier society.
“We’ve got to begin localising our politics, localising our economies, localising our spirits!” Mohau Pheko, coordinator of the African Gender and Trade Network, says in The Economics of Happiness.
Localising begins also with the simplest of things, such as our everyday food sources. “Moving away from natural-based food and getting imported food not only destroys the health of the environment, but it’s also destroying the health of individuals,” says Ian Cohen, Greens member for NSW, who shops at his local farmers’ market. “I think that whole movement back towards community-based values is important for the planet in terms of lowering the food miles, cutting out dependence on multi-national chains and big businesses, and in many cases getting food with less chemical input. This is all part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Cohen also believes that, in order to prevent unhappiness, “the connection of people of like minds is extremely important. The feeling that one has some use.”
“Working for people and working for the environment I think is a step in the direction of giving people satisfaction and also working towards getting back to community, whether it is spending time in an aged care facility where people are really longing for some companionship, or working in a community garden, or working out on a project that is going to make a change, working politically toward green goals in their many forms – these are all part of what can make people happy.”
“We need to go back to some older values,” says Mardie Townsend, associate professor of health, medicine, nursing and behavioural sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne, who has researched the importance of green spaces to our mental wellbeing. “To say, do I have enough to eat, do I have enough to drink, do I have love and affection and companionship, and do I have pleasant surrounds, and if I do then I’m fine!”
Gross National Happiness:
In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of the Republic of Bhutan at the time, coined the term ‘gross national happiness’ as a more holistic way of assessing a nation’s wellbeing than ‘gross domestic product’ (GDP). These days more countries are embracing the importance of such measures. Britain’s Office of National Statistics recently announced they would be collecting information about psychological and environmental wellbeing as part of the existing annual General Household Survey.
14 ways to chase your happiness
It takes only the simplest of ideas and actions to start fostering a sense of contentedness in your life.
1 Buy your food locally. More conversations happen at farmers’ markets and the local bakery than big supermarkets, so make grocery shopping a social outing rather than
2 Join a community garden. Grow your own vegies, green your neighbourhood and learn from the other green thumbs in your area.
3 Build meaningful relationships. Make time for family and friends and inspire them by helping to brainstorm ideas, solve a problem, or make a connection with another friend of yours.
4 Be near nature. Just getting out into the park will dramatically lift your mood, so make a regular habit of a walk in the outdoors.
5 Declutter. The more we have, the less we seem to savour, so remember that less is actually more and donate your excess goods to someone who will use them.
6 Sleep. Get into a regular sleeping pattern and don’t burn the midnight oil too often – that way you’re getting enough rest and vitamin D.
7 Cook for friends. Share good food and good conversation with appreciative people who make you laugh.
8 Get some chickens. Being around and caring for pets helps to keep their owners happy and healthy; and chickens are a very eco-friendly addition to any household.
9 Donate your time where it’s needed. You could visit the elderly, remove weeds from bushland or clean up the local river.
10 Join or start a local group. It could be anything from a community choir to a book club. But allow for flexibility and don’t overload your schedule.
11 Help organise a local fête. Recreate vibrancy in your local community and celebrate what’s special about your area.
12 Ride your bike. Exercise is a great mood-booster, plus it’s an emissions-free transport option.
13 Write to your local MP. Share your ideas about what you’d like to see happen to make
your local area even better.
The film The Economics of Happiness is screening in various locations across Australia in the coming months. Click here to see screening dates, times and venues.