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.

Saul: Fantastic.

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?

Anderson: Sneaky.

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 311 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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: Right.

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 22012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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