'Happy' New Year?

January 8, 2007

‘Happy’ New Year?

How many people have we wished a ‘Happy New Year’ to over the past week? And what exactly were we wishing them? What, after all, makes people happy?
Many westerners assume that happiness increases with wealth and dream of winning the national lottery. Yet studies show that there is little corresponding rise of happiness with increase of GDP and economic well-being of western nations.

Robert F. Kennedy once told university students that ‘gross national product‚Ķmeasures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages. It pays no heed to the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our wit nor our courage, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth living, and it can tell us everything about our country except those things that make us proud to be a part of it.’

Last week at the annual Winter School of the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, I heard Dr Michael Schluter propose that the goal of our societies should not be ever-increasing GDP but rather Relational Well-Being (RWB).

Dr Schluter, pictured here in front of Charles Darwin’s Cambridge house (Darwin figures somewhere in the Schluter family-tree) pointed out that in western countries a growing interest in subjective well-being reflected the failure of increased wealth to bring greater happiness. The emphasis in liberal democracies on maximising choice, income and rights resulted not in greater social cohesion but rather in the fragmentation of family and community relationships.

Humanity needed a new charter, he proposed, with a goal and a destination not based simply on economic growth. The biblical term for such a goal, he explained, was ‘Shalom’: social harmony, peace and absence of conflict, security and safety, and a society at peace with itself.

On my return to Holland from Cambridge, a large colour photo of a Pacific Island chief in the newspaper caught my attention, undertitled: The happiest man in the world. A full-page article explained the concept of the Happy Planet Index of the New Economics Foundation, ranking Vanuatu in the South Pacific as the happiest place on earth. (see www.happyplanetindex.org/survey.htm)

I was intrigued by this concept of the HPI. Was this something akin to what Dr Schluter was talking about? The index, I read, was arrived at by multiplying life satisfaction by life expectancy and dividing by the ‘ecological footprint’. Don’t ask me to explain – check out the website yourself.

According to this index, Central American and Caribbean republics, like Guatemala (8) and Cuba (6), rank in the ten happiest nations, while the Netherlands comes a lowly 70! Worse still, Belgium (78) and Germany (81) are only a shade above war-torn Lebanon (83). New Zealand (94) and Denmark (99) manage to head off Bosnia (103), while Libyans (107) are slightly happier than Brits (108). The poor Americans come in at 150th position!! (Funny that we don’t hear much about refugees trying to get to Vanuatu, Guatemala or Cuba!)

No, something’s not quite right about this list! Somebody seems to have their wires crossed.

What is missing from the HPI approach, and from the traditional western GDP development model, is what Dr Schluter sees as the focus of biblical teaching: right relationships, the key to happiness. This concurs with the findings of Lord Layard of the London School of Economics, that in rich societies what really affects happiness is the quality of relationships.

Christianity was a relational religion, explained Dr Schluter last week. Before matter existed, relationship existed – within the Trinity. The Old Testament law was given to protect and promote the practice of right relationships – or righteousness. The ultimate goal of society was thus ‘shalom’, or ‘relational well-being’. RWB should be the goal of social change, and would bring political and economic benefits. This also gave content to the prayer: ‘May your kingdom come’, I thought to myself.

In his opening address to the Winter School, Dr Schluter suggested ways in which RWB could be measured and achieved. He also proposed ‘Relationships State of the Nation’ surveys be conducted of both western and non-western nations, giving a more biblical perspective on the comparative health of the world’s societies. Indicators would include marriage and divorce rates, social inclusion of the elderly, neighbourhood relationships, incidence of ethnic violence, and more. (See Dr Schluter’s paper, What charter for humanity? www.jubilee-centre.org/cambridge_papers/index.php)

Even the Dutch secular weekly, Elsevier, would agree with Dr Schluter. This week’s edition suggested 26 ways to improve your life in 2007. These included:
· ‘Go to church – faith is unbelievably healthy for you’
· ‘Show that you’re sorry’
· ‘Restore sabbath rest’
· ‘Cherish relationships’
Not a bad start for a ‘happy’ new year!

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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