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Health, wealth and happiness

Confession time. Watersheds, landforms and the natural environment are my first love – but ecological economics is my second. Together they blend into the theme on which I now speak and write; business productivity.

This US trip has allowed me to fully indulge these three passions, and to develop a fourth addiction – to the New York Times. Its tone is at once literary and incisive, resulting in a conversational clarity as charming as it is compelling. Its size and shape enables everyone at the breakfast table to read their favorite section without difficulties relating to marmalade, coffee pots or seniority.

I attended the Princeton Alumni Day (lectures and lunch), a huge affair in which the work of current and past staff and students, as well as the ongoing fund-raising efforts of alumni, are celebrated. My sister-in-law and I first attended my brother’s lecture on ‘Greek tragedy and us’, which was absolutely marvelous. It shed new light for me on the history and conventions of modern drama that enable us to move between different media and styles without even knowing we are using different tools and assumptions for each.

Then all three of us went to Professor Angus Deaton’s lecture on ‘Health, wealth and happiness around the world.’ Wonderful work. This morning I discover not only does the New York Times have a Sunday edition, but that it contains two articles on just this topic.

The first, ‘America’s happiest man’, summarizes the findings of the third annual Gallup-Healthways wellbeing index, and maps them across the whole of the US. As part of an effort to measure ‘the good life’, 1,000 randomly-selected people a day are asked questions on a number of topics including about how happy they were the previous day, work satisfaction, eating habits, illnesses and stress levels. The map is amazing, with clearly-defined geographic regions of joy and misery.

The second article, ‘How to stop trading away the future’, is a review by Nancy F Koehn of a book called ‘The economics of enough: how to run the economy as if the future matters’, by Diane Coyle and published by Princeton University Press. The author (Ms. Coyle, as the Times calls her in its courtly way)  begins with financial borrowing that of course gives us money now that has to be paid back – in a future that has become someone else’s present – and moves on to what she calls the ‘other challenge’, of environmental sustainability. For example, our ongoing depletion of stocks of fish, water and other resources ‘shows our inability to assume responsibility for the impact of today’s choices on tomorrow’s prospects.’ Diane Coyle says three elements – measurement, values and institutions – are needed to bring about a better balance between the present and the future.

And, I would argue, between the imbalances we see within and between nations, which were the subject of Professor Deaton’s presentation.

Better measures of economic well-being than GDP are needed, Diane Coyle says, such as for health, education, employment and the environment, including stocks of not only of fish and other resources, but also social and other forms of capital.

This has been the subject of lectures I’ve given every year since 2004 at Auckland University – the 2011 series is coming up soon, and while my visit to the US has been focused on my the heavy construction sector, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to also run into the latest and greatest information for my annual updates of this topic – which finally seems to be coming back into fashion.

This time, may it be more than a fad. Find out more about:

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