Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Well, I’m here in the rain belt, in Seattle.
Micah Saul: Ah, yes.
Anderson: Where summer apparently never comes.
Saul: It does, but it lasts for you know, just a couple weeks.
Anderson: Oh. Oh, wait! I think I… Yeah, it just went by the window outside.
Saul: Oh, is it there?
Anderson: Yeah. Well, it was, but it’s gone now.
Saul: Oh. Alright.
Anderson: But I saw it.
Saul: Oh. Well, excellent.
Anderson: That was a great Seattle summer.
Anderson: That leaves me so overburdened with happiness.
Saul: Ah. Funny you should mention that, because you’re about to talk to Laura Musikanski at the Happiness Initiative.
Anderson: Yes, indeed. Laura was the Executive Director at Sustainable Seattle, and then she went on to found the Happiness Initiative. And basically what she does is she’s trying to pull us away from our ideas of measuring progress as just GDP.
Saul: Right. Taking that and sort of moving beyond into well, how do we sort of quantify a good life? And in her case specifically, how do we quantify happiness?
Anderson: Exactly. And sort of pulling a bunch of ideas that the kingdom of Bhutan actually originated. So it’s going to be fun to see how those kind of port over to America. How we actually do quantify happiness. And then once you’ve quantified it, where do you go from there?
Saul: Measurement only takes you so far. At some point you need to move beyond measurement into well, how do we improve these numbers?
Anderson: Yeah, and I think it’ll be interesting to see does she have specific policy ideas going beyond happiness? Or is she more policy-agnostic and really just interested in changing the conversation to one of happiness. Of course, there are some interesting questions of the good buried underneath happiness.
Saul: Is happiness actually the good. You know, is that what we should be striving for? Or is that merely a reflection of some other deeper good?
Anderson: Are those goods philosophical, or are we looking at happiness as just sort of some neurochemical brain state?
Saul: I’m interested to see what she has to say, how she answers those questions. Also just kind of interested in how she arrived at the idea of happiness being an important measure.
Anderson: So without further ado, Laura Musikanski.
Laura Musikanski: The Happiness Initiative is a grassroots organization working on the platform of collaboration and partnership and co-creation to create a new economic paradigm. So when we’re looking at our current economic paradigm, we’re looking at a system that’s driven by money, where both our government, the organizations that we work for, whether its businesses or even “not for profits,” are driven by money. And our individual lives…we’re often valuing ourselves based on how much money we make. That’s actually a pretty new way of being and thinking, in terms of human existence. And it’s probably very inherently not what we really are all about as humans, as beings on this planet, and as part of this planet. So we’re looking at being one of the stepping stones for getting us out of that.
Aengus Anderson: I mean, it’s sort of a platitude that money isn’t everything. At the same time, we live in a world that quantifies a lot of stuff. And certainly maybe the easiest way to quantify it is in terms of dollars. How did that come about, and what sort of mindset is that engendering?
Musikanski: Well, I won’t answer exactly that question. But I will say that we are in a system where we measure what matters, where we manage what we can measure. And so the Happiness Initiative is a way of transferring us from just a single measure to a much more complex measure, so that we can actually get to a system where measurement, it does not drive us. We are a path out into a place where we’re living more in accord with our hearts and our minds and our spirits, and meeting our needs. So what we’ve done is we’ve looked at— This actually comes from Sustainable Seattle twenty-one years ago where they looked at what are the current measures that are driving pretty much all of our behavior? Gross Domestic Product, profit, and how much wealth you have. And how can we have wider measures? How can we supplant those measures with more comprehensive measures?
It’s based on a model that’s already working, and I think that’s really important this isn’t something new. So that’s a model that was created in Bhutan. It was I think forty-one years ago that the 17 year-old king of Bhutan was asked, “What are you going to do to increase your country’s gross national product?” And his response was, “Gross national happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
It took awhile, but they identified a way to measure and so therefore manage, the gross national happiness of their country. And they define that in nine domains. There’s material well being, which is can you meet your basic needs? Are you having to make choices between heat and food, or healthcare and housing? There’s governance, which is do you feel like you can be involved in your local government? Do you feel like your local government is listening to you? There’s the environment, which is do you feel like your environment that you’re living [in], is it toxic or is it healthy, and is enough being done to preserve and restore your environment?
Then there’s community. And there’s three aspects of community: What are your relationships with family and friends? The amount of time that you get to go out and do volunteer work or be involved in organizational community activities. And then your trust. Do you feel like you’re living in a place where you can trust? And then there’s culture. So that’s sports and artistic endeavors. And that’s both participation and spectatorship. And learning, because we know that we learn our whole lives. We don’t like, grow up. We never essentially grow up. You’re always becoming, your always growing. So there are opportunities throughout your life to learn.
And then time balance, which is an important one. Do you feel like you have enough time in your life to do what you want to do in your day? Do you always feel rushed? Do you feel like you can do the things that are really important to you? Or are you just always doing what you have to do? There’s physical health. Can you get done what you need to get done? And then there’s psychological well-being, which is what most people think of when they say “happiness.” So that’s, how do you feel? Your affect, positive and negative. How happy are you? How joyous are you? How sad are you? How anxious are you? How stressed are you?
And then work experience. That’s the one that we added, which is asking do you feel like you have work that’s really meaningful to you? Do you feel like you’re adequately compensated for that work?
So when you take all of those and you start using those as they do in Bhutan so that they’re equally important to make decisions at a policy level, things start to really change. I’ll give you an example. So, they were facing a decision— Now, this is a poor country. And we know that Bhutan is not “the happiest nation in the world.” And one of the issues is they struggle with material well-being, with meeting basic needs. But they value the environment and their culture equally with their material well-being. They had a decision of whether or not to put big hydro into one of their valleys, right, in the lands right above India. Lots of money can come in.
When they looked at that decision and they looked at the impact that it would have on the environment and their culture, it rated very low. High on the economy, but low in the environment and culture. And so they didn’t put that big hydro in. They actually have a policy to keep 60% of their environment undeveloped or natural, because they see how important that is to their culture and to their basic sense of well-being. That’s a very different perception than we have about how do we manage and how do we measure things.
Anderson: All of these thoughts about happiness and thinking about the world imply that our current system, if continued on, somehow that leads to a worse quality of life than we would have otherwise. Let’s just play with an idea for a second. If we keep going on that path, and we’re only looking at Gross Domestic Product, where does that take us both as individuals but also as a collective?
Musikanski: Well, we can just look at our past and the trends that we’ve created. A group who did some fantastic work was Dennis and Donella Meadows and their Limits to Growth, where they modeled the trends in terms of consumption of resources, in terms of creation of stuff. Food consumption, creation of waste, and then human population. This was done back in 1970. And they just looked at those trends and said, “Okay, where will we be by 2020?” And so if you look at their models, they say something like, “Well, in 2010 you’re going to start to see some pretty dramatic and ugly incidents due to climate change.” We’re gonna see a lot greater rift between the rich and the poor, which we’re seeing here in the United States.
And the facts are there. So today, 1% of the population in the United States earns over 20% of the GDP, whereas twenty years ago they earned 8%. And today 50% of us in the United States earn 20% of the GDP. So 1% are earning more than 50% of us. And that trend isn’t going to get “better” for the most of us. And that’s worldwide.
Why is it that so many of us are unemployed, when so many of the corporations are making a profit? It doesn’t make sense. That’s what you get when you have averages, when you have one unique metric that guides everything.
Anderson: That we can still justify that system as making sense you mean, because that’s the only way we’re measuring it.
Musikanski: Right. But we’re not looking at all of the other…you know, what’s happening in terms of our society, in terms of our personal lives, in terms of the environment. And we also know that we’re running out of natural resources.
Anderson: So, I’ve talked to all sorts of different folks in this project thus far. Some of them that I’ve spoken to, they have a real sense that we’ve hit these limits of growth before, and it’s the reason everyone always trots out Malthus as sort of a doomsayer who is proven wrong because of the transformation from the organic economy to the coal-based economy. And a lot of them have faith that we’ll find another technology, or we’ll get off the planet in some way that allows us to draw on resources from elsewhere. Can we propel the current system on indefinitely just by expansion?
Musikanski: So, I’m coming from the point of view of an activist and not the theoretical. And if we look today and what’s happening in our own cities, in our own country, and across the world, and we look at the misery, and we look at the lack of social justice, and we look at the ecosystems that are in decline, and we look at the other species that are in decline, and some of them near extinction and some of them extinct, there is no justification for that. We have to do something to stop this. We can’t say, “Oh well, the next technological solution will come along and then we’ll all be able to have that dream that we used to have,” that will become either have the house and the two kids, or the other dream that we’ll all become millionaires or billionaires.
The fact is that today, in this city, there are many kids going hungry. That in this city there are many people who are not able to get healthcare. And this is Seattle. This is a city where there are so many billionaires and millionaires that there’s just no reason for something like that. And it’s worse or the same in pretty much every other city in the United States, and in many of the rural communities.
There is no technological solution in the future for that. We have to solve those problems now. And that’s all of us working together on those. And the Happiness Initiative is a little theoretical in that we’re creating a new measure, that we’re trying to create a complete system changer. We’re not on the ground planting the plants or going out and finding ways to pull lead out of the earth, or science-based solutions for getting rid of the impurities in the soil and the water. But we need all of us working on this together.
What’s key to that also is that we all need to work together. There’s no way for all of us to know about each other. We’re in that part of this new way of being that there’s too many players. It’s too chaotic. There is no center, there is no hub. But we need to find ways to work together, and to lose the idea that any one of us is the solution. Because if any one of us were the solution, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
Anderson: So that sounds like there’s a moral imperative, then, to do this. There’s just the immediate injustice of it. The last conversation I had was with a guy named Cameron Whitten. He’s really the only person who’s talked about issues of class. And when we were talking about his hopes for the future, I kept talking about earlier interviewees who’d mentioned well, things are getting incrementally better if you look at the broad sweep of history, or there will be a technological fix, or other ones just think well, the system’s going to run itself off a cliff and we’ll take care of stuff then. So there’ve been a lot of different discussions, and his point was basically like, “Look. These people don’t come from that homeless camp. This is something that needs to be fixed now.” So it’s interesting that kind of, the two conversations I’ve had thus far that really tackle the class came in a row. I’m interested in the fact that that’s overlooked so often.
Musikanski: So, I’ll tell you a little bit about my own personal story. I grew up well below the poverty line, after my father left when I was very young. I knew hunger as a child. I also knew what it meant to have to make the choice between heat healthcare. Growing up here in Seattle, which is a different climate so it actually really did get cold in the winter, ice would form on the inside of windows because we couldn’t afford to keep the house warm. And we didn’t have very many blankets so I would just put the carpet over my bed to stay warm.
But I had the good fortune to be able to go and visit my father. In 1976 I went and visited him in Korea. And I know Korea is a very different country today. And I’ll never forget, we were driving down the street when I looked kind of—just glanced out the window and I saw a very old man hunched over carrying bricks on his back, and a small older person holding them up. And I looked again, and I could see that that very old hunched-over man was my father’s age, and that that was a child my age.
When I looked at them I could tell that it was not that great a chance that they would live through that winter, because winters in Korea are very very harsh. That for me sent a message that no matter what, we can’t live a life that’s just about trying to have pleasure. We have to do something to try to bring about a better place for ourselves and for others. And to embody that and to live that is absolutely core to the work that we’re doing, and is part of us arriving at maybe what could be a solution that we could actually get to a place where all of our futures (And when I say “all of us” I don’t mean just humans and animals, but also the waters and the the rocks and the entire planet; that they’re all of our futures.) look like something we could thrive in.
Anderson: You mentioned kind of the personal experience. And with a lot of people I ask, we take the idea of the good down to its lowest levels. Where’d you get those ideas of goodness? Is it a utilitarian thing? And is that something you can achieve through stuff, or is it— I mean, you mentioned a sense of deep well-being, which sounds more spiritual than physical?
Musikanski: There’s science that tells us other pieces that will drastically increase our well being, which I can rattle through. But the core to this science tells us that you need two things for a real, lasting, sense of well-being. One is that you are working towards a higher cause, a larger thing. Something that’s bigger than yourself. And the other piece is that you’re making a difference. It’s not about yourself, it’s about being a part of something else.
Anderson: Does focus on measuring things through monetary terms, does that inherently lead to a society that’s more individualistic?
Musikanski: If you go back to our Declaration of Independence it says life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And Jefferson was fighting with himself, “Am I going to put pursuit of property or person of happiness in there?” We take that in terms of it’s an individual thing, but what Jefferson meant when he talked about happiness, was he was citing Aristotle, and eudaimonia, and the idea of deep well-being that’s rooted in community.
There’s a few things that science tells us that will actually increase our happiness. So, if your income is below $75,000 a year for a family of four in the United States, for every dollar more that you earn, you’ll be a lot happier. So, you really do need to be thinking about your income if you’re not earning any money. (Message to self.) Once you’re earning $75,000 and above them, as you earn more you’re not going to experience that much greater sense of well-being. But you are going to experience a greater sense of well being if you’re engaged ind the democratic process.
And then community. Community is a huge driver for well-being. So, your friends and your family… Those strong, good relationships with friends and family; that doesn’t mean pursuing the bad ones.
Anderson: Right. A lot of people probably wonder about that but yes, that’s a good caveat to have.
Musikanski: Not all family and friends are good for you. And working in your community. So that voluntary work, whether that’s official or unofficial. And then just increasing your sense of trust in the community, which can be as simple as just getting to know your neighbors, going for walks more often, and just getting to know people. Actually looking them in the eye and say, “Hi.” Those will really increase your sense of well-being, whereas living alone and having a lot of stuff, doesn’t.
So how do we get that information out there? Because that’s fact-driven. There’s research that has demonstrated that. How do we get that information out there? And that’s part of the work that we’re doing.
Anderson: Let’s say, without getting into the details of how that change happens, it does happen. Is that enough of a revision to the system?
Musikanski: I think it’s just really important that we have the perspective that we do not have the solution. Just like, you know, the Prius is not the solution, but it is helping us to get to a different mode of transportation.
So, that we do more of this work, that we do it within this chaotic muck. And that we allow that muck to feed whatever the next economy is. I think it’s very important that we don’t get stuck on, “This is a great solution. This is my idea and this is awesome and it’s going to happen,” that we don’t get stuck on that.
And that’s something that we’re trying to do with this project, is to really open it up to becoming a shared work, and opening it up to becoming part of something that will change and grow with the other actors in this field.
So what is a new economy going to look like? It’d be really interesting. I hope that I get to see it in my lifetime. [laughs]
Anderson: So there’s a big mindset change that has to happen for an economic shift like this to happen. I’m thinking of the example of the hydro plant in Bhutan. If that was here, even if you did have a government that was really interested in preserving that, there’d still be a lot of pressure from other sectors because we weight the economic more importantly than the others, right. So if we sort of set this up as a framework for policy-making, it seems like there would be a lot of cultural tension in that that policy might not necessarily reflect what everyone would want. So, how does the culture change?
Musikanski: The communication and the conversations that evolved because of the work that’s being done. And the work that’s being done is absolutely elemental to bringing about this change. But where we are in sort of the creation of this new, if we want to call it a revolution in terms of we had the agricultural revolution, we had the Industrial Revolution, we had the technology revolution. Now we’re ready for that next revolution.
The actors that are doing the work right now, whether it’s the Happiness Initiative or New Economics Foundation or Actions for Happiness, we’re all in this sort of chaotic state right now. And what’s going to carry through is going to be the identification of the values, the identification of the language that we speak. The creation of the way that we think, and what that culture is. And so that’s that communication that we’re doing right now. You can’t do the communication without those of us doing the work.
We’re not the visionaries. We’re an activist organization that has a new metric in a system that is metric-driven. And we know that we’re needed. If everybody is a philosopher, if everybody’s a visionary, it’s like who’s going to help actually put the gears in place so that the machine will work and then we’ll get to where we want to go.
When you look back at what happened with the environmental movement, we say, “Well, Silent Spring sparked all of that.” Well, there was a lot going on before Silent Spring. Something will take hold to help bring about this change hopefully, rather than we just fallen into tremendous disaster and are forced to change. I think that’s when the reasons why many of us feel so driven to have these conversations. Because the alternative is just so dire.
Anderson: Are these changes things that we can actually get to through dialogue with people in power, or are we sort of in a situation like some of my other interviewees have discussed, whether it’s the anarchist or the peak oil guy I was talking to, who both sort of feel like you can’t really talk to people over there. You’re not going to convince them to go against a system that’s so in favor of them. Can we sort of avoid that through conversation, or is that something where a change like this actually has to have some kind of big crisis moment?
Musikanski: Well, I am afraid it has to have a big crisis moment because that’s how we are as biological beings. But we are also heart-spiritual beings, and that’s why we’re trying to do this work so we don’t get to the crisis moment. I talked to a foundation manager a while back, and what they wanted to know is, “How are you going to take the cornerstones out of the current system? How is your project meant to pull those apart so that the current system collapses?” Very subversive. The powers that be, they’re not gonna listen to us. But what we can do is try to find ways to get the message through them, that they’re not totally aware of the message that they’re telling. [laughs] Right?
Musikanski: It’s totally sneaky. And we need to be learning from the systems that are in place. So, marketing initially started out as a way of getting people informed. That was what it was for. But now it’s a way of completely manipulating people’s minds. This is the system that we live in.
Sometimes I’m asked you know, what are your project’s biggest weaknesses and threats. And of course funding is one. But the other’s branding. If I had a ton of money for this project, I would put it into branding. Because that’s a way to subvert people. And that is a great way to work within the system.
Anderson: Are the stakes higher now than they have been before? You know, I always ask people is this a unique historical moment, knowing full well the absurdity of asking that question. Like, of course every historical moment is unique. Of course there’s no bad time to be talking about what the future is holding. But of course there are certain points were like, a lot is actually in the balance. There’s a point where decisions are made, and Rome starts to really deteriorate and collapse. We know that moments really do matter more than others. Maybe. Is this one of those moments?
Musikanski: You know, I don’t feel like I have all of the facts and am qualified to be able to answer that. But when we look at what the scientists are telling us, and what the sociologists are telling us, the disasters that are going to hit are hitting a lot sooner than we thought they were going to hit. We don’t really have that many more years left until it’s not in another country, it’s in our own backyard. Like, I’m forty-eight. When I was a kid, we didn’t see homeless people in the street. I mean, occasionally you’d see native people, which was terribly shameful. But you just didn’t see homeless people like they are on the street. And in my lifetime, that radically changed.
I’ve seen a change in the way that the climate is. I know that this isn’t a science-based answer, but we can we can look at NOAA, and we can look at how the occurrence of huge multi-million dollar disasters that are hitting this country has drastically increased. And we look at what happened in Japan at 3/11—they call it 3⁄11 because it’s the day that there was both a man-made and a natural disaster, right, and the impact of that. I mean, that’s something that feels huge and monumental, but it’s something that we know, I think inherently we know we can expect more of that to happen.
So the question really, I think, is is it too late? And if it is too late then what do we need to do? So if it is too late, if it’s not about creating a thriving, sustainable world, it’s about creating resilience so that we can get through this in a way that doesn’t hurt too badly. And it’s two sides of the same coin.
Aengus Anderson: How about Laura Musikanski?
Micah Saul: Let’s talk.
Anderson: The critique of GDP as our only metric of success, or progress…
Saul: I buy that 100%.
Anderson: That’s pretty stinging. And I like the way that she positions herself as someone working against GDP from the inside of the system.
Saul: That metric, while it has gotten us to where we are now, the sooner we can move away from that the sooner we can start fixing things.
Anderson: And happiness is an interesting way to sort of attack that problem, if indeed it is a problem. Because it seems like switching over to a more comprehensive set of metrics for measuring happiness or progress or whatever you want to measure in society, it seems kind of innocuous at first. It’s something that’s really difficult to disagree with. And yet it’s a really powerful critique that could threaten a lot of our economic frameworks.
Saul: Oh. Absolutely. This is incredibly threatening to business as usual. And this represents a fundamental change in the way you evaluate the well-being of a country. Or a city. Or an economy.
Anderson: So here’s something that I was wondering, during and after the conversation. How do we get from is to ought? How do we take the jump that David Hume doesn’t want us to take, but we kind of have to take? So, say we get a good metric for looking at happiness. What does that tell us to do policy-wise?
Saul: I didn’t hear much of the the policy, the sort of sweeping policy reforms that you’d expect.
Anderson: On one hand, tactically that makes total sense. You wouldn’t want to have all that on the table. Also, it makes total sense that if you feel you really don’t know…
Saul: You don’t want to make those claims. Yeah.
Anderson: Exactly. It seems sort of like Laura was pushing towards… Well, actually it’s something that made me think a lot of of Cameron Whitten, the idea of like, trying to get people to talk about things together in different ways, and being very agnostic about where that conversation goes and more concerned about making that conversation happen. And having a lot of people at the table.
Saul: I got the same feeling.
Anderson: Something that actually I was really curious about though, was okay this is a gigantic shift in terms of how we think about the economy. For most people, myself included, it’s really easy to just think about greater productivity or greater numbers, and you assume that happiness…you know, that’s not really government’s business to be measuring that.
In theory, and this is of course just in theory not in practice, but we create this sort of playing field in which like, when Colin Camerer was talking about behavioral economics, you allow people to sort of pursue their own little things and you try to give them a system with the ultimate freedom to do that and assume that they will maximize their own happiness, right. So, are there huge presumptions just in the very choice of what the happiness index measures? Is there sort of a morality underneath that that’s not visible, that’s like perhaps a veiled behind sociology or psychology?
Saul: Yeah, that was something that I really wanted to hear and I didn’t, was tackling the…as we word it in this project all over the place, tackling the good. I mean, happiness is an extension of the good, in some way. So what is the good? And I didn’t get that here as much as we have in other places. I think we got more of it than maybe in some conversations, but it certainly wasn’t a main thrust here.
Anderson: There’s certainly a pragmatic aspect to that, right? You don’t want to say, “This is a subjective interpretation of what happiness is, and we’re going to try to implement this across the economy.” Even though every system is to some extent like that. Including GDP, which has moral assumptions built into it.
Anderson: Something else I wonder about is well, you’ve gotta ask the devil’s advocate question, why is being happy good? There are plenty of theological traditions that would argue that that is just one part of a of a series of things, and perhaps not your most formative moments. I mean, I think we also have many sort of tropes in literature at that sort of prize the moments of unhappiness as being formative.
Anderson: Is there any merit to those things? Or are they just sort of justification for all those times that things go wrong and you have to say, “Well, I got something out of that.”
Saul: That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about that.
Anderson: And maybe that’s something we can follow up on elsewhere.
Saul: You know, I think that might be the ideal place to end this one: Why is happiness happiness good?
Anderson: What’s the value of it? And everyone who’s listening is going to go, “Guys that’s a really stupid question to be asking.”
Saul: Yeah, probably. But, stupid questions [crosstalk] are our prerogative.
Anderson: But that’s what we’re here for. That should be on our on our business cards.
Laura’s conversation is going to also make a really interesting segue to David Korten, who I’ll be talking to next over on Bainbridge island. He gets us into a lot of policy stuff, deconstructing what is an economy for, and how should it work.
Saul: Yeah, that seems like the perfect place to go from here.
Anderson: Well, let’s go there.
That was Laura Musikanski at The Happiness Initiative recorded on a houseboat in Seattle, Washington on July 2, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.