The economics of happiness

A new documentary film is proposing that localised economies can heal the Earth and restore our wellbeing

There has perhaps been no time more important than now, when the world faces urgent environmental, economic and social crises, to ask, “what’s really going on here?” It turns out that these crises are all connected, and there’s something systemic driving them: globalisation, according to a new documentary film, The Economics of Happiness. But the film offers a message of hope, showing there is a strategic way to address these problems simultaneously – economic localisation.

“The incredible benefits of localising need to be spelled out, and above all in terms of happiness,” believes the film’s co-producer, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who is the founder of The International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC).

Helena spends part of every year in Ladakh in India, working with local people to protect their culture and environment from the effects of rapid modernisation. As one of the first westerners to visit the region when it was opened to tourism and development in 1975, she quickly mastered the Ladakhi language and gained a unique insider perspective as western goods, policies and attitudes impacted the indigenous culture.

What she found at the heart of the threatened Ladakhi culture were the things she realised are key to individual and social wellbeing. “What it’s really about,” she says, “is rediscovering the essential relationships – both with the living world and with one another – that ultimately give our lives meaning and joy.”

But the Economics of Happiness isn’t proposing we go backwards to a previous existence, rather it calls for a change in the economic system in order to bring about a replenishment of what really creates quality of life. Featuring interviews with thinkers and activists from every continent – including Zac Goldsmith, Vandana Shiva, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation and oil depletion expert, Richard Heinberg – the film suggests that by shifting towards localised economies, we can reduce our ecological footprint while increasing human wellbeing.

“What’s so wonderful about localisation is that there is a path that transcends what most people believe are the only options: communism, socialism or capitalism,” Helena says. “The system we have today is a political choice. There hasn’t been enough discussion about the importance of the human-scale, instead of giant, top-down structures, whether they’re political or economic.”

The importance of sustainable agriculture is a key focus in the documentary. Removing people from the land is the root of all unemployment it argues, while local food systems increase self-reliance and reduce poverty, and biodiverse farms are capable of producing 3-5 times more food than industrial monocultures.

The appearance of these kinds of initiatives is accelerating, Helena says. “It’s incredibly inspiring. In the early days, people thought it sounded fanciful and unrealistic, but now there’s a very powerful local food movement. Projects that started 20 years ago with no help from the media or government and no funding – everywhere you look, they are growing.”

Changes such as re-regulation of trade and finance, producing what we need closer to home and shortening supply chains, and creating a decentralised energy system based on renewables, will create more jobs, reduce environmental impact and strengthen community life, the film promises.

The government can play its part through regulation, tax and subsidisation that favours the local, Helena believes, but she emphasises that just being disgruntled with government is missing the true picture; the real problem is huge corporations. “The wealth and the power lies with these de-regulated, mobile banks,” she says. “The people inside them are being pressured by speculation and investment, so it’s a sort of blind system, where the escalation is disastrous.”

But our current economic model, based on pursuing endless growth in GDP (gross domestic product), is now being put under scrutiny as the stresses it creates for people increase. “It’s leading to drug and alcohol abuse and to depression,” Helena believes, “it’s really destroying human relationships and people are having to become harder so it’s a very sad thing to see. It’s so unnecessary.”

With The Economics of Happiness, Helena wanted to spell out these connections. “I don’t think the bigger links are made clear – between speculative investment and large-scale corporate concentration and how that, in turn, lies behind not just global warming and waste and toxic pollution, but unemployment, loneliness and so on.

“I think we should be demanding meaningful policy change. We need to be talking about why government is so poor – why is there no money when we know that there are billions for all kinds of technological expansion and we see the billions concentrated in the hands of multinationals?”

The film hopes to show there is another way. “The mainstream media doesn’t let us know about the resistance to globalisation or about these alternatives,” Helena says. “But now local initiatives are being linked to business alliances, people are beginning to move money into local banks, and of course you have the transition town movement… It really is bottom-up people power.”

So how do we begin getting involved? “People can become more aware of these issues,” she suggests, “starting to turn towards building closer relationships with friends and like-minded people in the area where they live. Awareness building and group process becomes a source of support and joy.”

Helena feels that by driving consumerism, our economic system is perverting our real needs. Research worldwide has shown that what people value more than anything is good relationships with other people, she points out, and that there’s a sense of wellbeing when we’re in nature. “For people suffering from depression, studies have shown that a large proportion found that a walk in nature made them feel better. And equally a walk in a shopping mall made them feel less good.”

The film is clear in its call, above all, for structural change. But it reveals that in moving away from being isolated, individualised consumers to connecting with other people, that immediately becomes an inner change. “We’re really looking for love, basically,” Helena says.

“If you look at successful treatments for alcohol and drug addiction, almost all of them include group process and community building. Community heals. Community creates happiness. What’s so wonderful about localisation is that it’s a path that can bring about these benefits very quickly if people understand and turn towards others.”

Read it and don’t weep.

Headlines about what’s going right in the world are now being shared with millions of people through digital screens on high streets and in shopping centres all around the UK.