The core message of The Economics of Happiness is fairly simple: modern life as we know it isn’t really making us happy. What we need is more community and to localize. What could be so hard about that? And then the rest of the film catalogs how we got where we are (colonialism, globalization) and some possible ways back to some sort of equilibrium where happiness can thrive. I went to the film hoping to emerge reinvigorated with answers of how I, as an individual, could act to move things along. In all honesty, as the film ended, I was feeling a little despondent about the enormity of the task at hand. But the reinvigoration came quickly – and from just the thing the film counsels we all need: more community. In this case, the community was the group of movie watchers who stayed after to engage in lively discussion. The movie was put on in collaboration between Sustainable Sudbury and the Friends of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. The venue was the refuge’s new visitor’s center, a wonderful resource for our local community – both in terms of a physical space and for the educational and community activities it can play host to. So, just in watching the film in a group setting, as opposed to streaming it on Netflix, alone in my living room to my laptop, it had a greater impact on me!
As for the film itself, it takes us to the isolated region of Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau. Twenty years ago, that society appeared fairly primitive by modern industrial standards, and yet what the film’s director, Helena Norbert-Hodge found, was a stable, equitable, society with no poverty or unemployment and a huge amount of joy in daily life. Only with the arrival of modern commerce and its pressures to consume and compete did the society start to see ethnic and religious conflict, unemployment, poverty and environmental degradation. It’s hard not to wonder how oversimplified this version of events is, but it illustrates the point and brings into focus the main message of the movie: our move toward globalization is at the root of many of our societal, economic and environmental problems. And by looking back to the traditional Ladakh way of life, we can see what aspects of that were valuable and did work. The take away was that the deeply felt sense of belonging and community made everyone in the society connected and therefore cooperative, so things worked and people were happy. It was a finely balanced way of life, closely in tune with the local environment. What it didn’t address was issues like population growth and competition for natural resources as population grows – but in focusing on what did work, it made its point.
The challenge I see for modern Western society is how we do the about face that is so clearly needed in order to recapture what we have lost. Unemployment, environmental degradation and financial meltdown have all resulted in our newly refocused attention on fixing what’s broken. The value of a film such as The Economics of Happiness is that it puts into sharp focus what the problems are and in the broadest terms, defines a solution: re-localization. The method by which we get there will be, no doubt, long and tortuous, but the first step is waking up and realizing that change is what we need. And it’s not as if the film gives us no concrete advice on how to approach this. The most obvious action an individual can take is to start with their own personal food system – a movement that is gaining more traction year by year with CSAs, community gardens, farmer’s markets and even supermarkets carrying more local products. But beyond the local food option, the film reminds us of 3 things we can work to change in the wider political and economic system (globalization) to make longer, deeper change back towards an economy that works towards happiness. These three things are regulation, tax and subsidies. It’s a little disappointing that there’s not more said in this realm, but those are huge issues which could each be a film in its own right. For me, just thinking about those three things reminds me that here’s where we start: recognize the problem, educate others to notice and hopefully care, organize and act to change the system that’s bringing us all down. It won’t happen overnight, but our slumber has been disturbed, we are waking up and smelling the (fair trade) coffee.