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Sangita Iyer

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The Higher the GDP, the Unhappier the Country

Posted: 02/05/2013 7:43 am

Our dominant western culture has conditioned us to believe material wealth will make us happy. In our quest to satisfy our insatiable desire to possess more we've become oblivious to the effects of our actions, which ironically, are creating more unhappiness.

We try to control nature and in doing so destroy the very source we depend on for our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. We develop technologies to extract fossil fuel from the deepest parts of the oceans, and blow apart the mightiest of mountains to extract minerals while undermining the integrity of our environment.

We clear-cut trees that purify the air we breathe. In our pursuit to control nature, we even try to tame and train the most powerful and ferocious animals "to obey the masters" and entertain us, robbing them of their rightful place in the web of life. Essentially humans tend to look at nature as a commodity that is meant to be subjugated for material gain and power, and ignore its intrinsic values, and more importantly, our own inherent interdependence with nature.

You see, our economic system which is based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is embedded in a utilitarian worldview that perceives nature as a supplier of infinite resources to be exploited for production, consumption and unlimited growth. GDP is used as one of the primary indicators to gauge the health of a country's economy and measure progress, leading us to believe consumerism creates happiness. However, this mechanistic paradigm fosters linear thinking and creates a conceptual separation of environment, society and economy.

Paradoxically, despite all the scientific progress and material comforts obtained through the illusion of controlling nature, happiness seems like an elusive butterfly, as more miseries are manifesting now than ever before.

Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher said, "If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires." Eighteenth century German philosopher and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said, "A person is never happy till their vague strivings has itself marked out its proper limitations." Renowned Indian spiritual leader Swami Chinmayananda who spread the ancient wisdom of Vedanta across the globe said, the root cause of unhappiness is not advancement or material wealth, but rather the "endless desires."

These ancient insights also ring true in the 21st century. In 2012 Global Finance magazine conducted an empirical study to measure happiness in 151 countries across the globe, and produced a comprehensive report called the Happy Planet Index (HPI). Essentially the Global HPI represents the efficiency with which countries convert the earth's finite resources into happiness and well-being for their citizens.

As it turns out, countries with low GDP ranked high in the HPI and had smaller Eco footprint compared with nations with high GDP that ranked low in the HPI and had larger Eco footprint per capita. Costa Rica ranked number one in the HPI with low GDP and smaller Eco footprint compared to one of the world's most advanced countries -- the USA, which had high GDP and a large Eco footprint per capita, but ranked 105 in the HPI; Canada ranked 65 in the HPI, boasting high GDP with a medium Eco-footprint per capita.

In 2012 Jigmi Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan, the first nation in the world to adopt Gross National Happiness said, the world needs to move away from GDP. "The purpose of development must be to create enabling conditions through public policy for the pursuit of the ultimate goal of happiness by all citizens."

Evidently material wealth does not equate with happiness, but instead creates more waste and pollution. So the question is how can we increase happiness while being Eco-centric? Perhaps embracing a more interdependent relationship with nature could influence the way we fulfill our desires and steer us towards the path to happiness.

Kindle Life, a book about spirituality by Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda, sheds light on two different worlds embedded in us -- the objective and subjective. The objective world is made up of sense organs and objects, including material goods, people and our interactions with them. This physical realm is easy to comprehend, as here we can touch, hear, smell, taste and see through our five sense organs -- skin, ears, nose, tongue and eyes respectively.

However the subjective realm is subtler, made up of three minds -- emotional aka the ego, intellectual and conscious -- each providing deeper insights. To begin with, when our sense organs come in contact with external objects they feed our mind with stimuli, which create feelings and desires that in turn trigger impulsive responses. According to the Holy Bhagavad-Gita scriptures, "All our sufferings in the world are caused by our own egocentric misconception the consequent arrogance characterized by our ever multiplying demands for wealth and our endless desires."

Seated a level deeper is the intellectual mind that rationalizes and analyzes, giving us the ability to reflect and respond logically to external stimuli. A 2007 Empirical research in the Netherlands reveals the intellect allows "humans to judge life cognitively by comparing life as it is with notions of how it should be."

In this level we become aware of our desires, and realize we have a choice to ignore the desires created by our emotional mind or remain with the dominant status quo. Unfortunately, the intellect is generally divorced from our mind, hence "most of our actions seem to emanate from the realm of the mind and we are misled by feelings instead of being guided by discrimination," (Kindle Life. p. 24). For instance when overcome by emotions we can't think clearly nor use proper discretion.

The deepest realm and the subtlest of all three minds is the conscious. In order to connect with this mind we need to get beyond the egocentric desires and intellectual analysis, and silence the internal chatter. Spiritual leaders warn, although humans want "Absolute Freedom and detest any shackles", unless we discipline ourselves to become still and contemplate, we would be unable to find lasting happiness. Eventually when we reach the conscious realm, we will realize, our desires are the root cause of unhappiness. (Kindle Life, p. 2)

So, taming our mind rather than taming nature to satisfy our insatiable desires for material possessions may be a better path to creating lasting happiness and a healthier planet, as Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth century poet and writer said, "Deviation from nature is deviation from happiness."

 

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