Monday, April 28, 2008

The Best Place to Live?

I'm a Canadian living in Poland. I've seen a good chunk of the world and like to think I know when I've found a good place to live. While most people you could ask would tell you they love Poland and wouldn't consider moving elsewhere, many do leave for a while to work abroad. This is because they don't think you can make enough money here, Poland isn't "rich" enough, and they always add the word "yet". These people that leave will almost all come back in a couple of years, most of them with pounds, euros or even dollars in their pockets, to marry, settle down, buy a house and car and start making babies. These people have two measurements of what makes a good country, one is purely economical, where can you make the most money, and the second is far more subjective, difficult to put your finger on, but it has to do with happiness I suppose.

We've grown accustomed over the years to equating prosperity with happiness, therefore the most common measurement of the "goodness" of a country has become GNP or GDP growth. By this standard, if we make more stuff this year than last, we're happier. Of course this is a flawed approach and has led the world to the brink of self-destruction. The consequences of the mantra of producing more and more has brought with it many of the world's problems today, from global warming due to pollution to the God Car mindset of drive, don't walk. A quick check of 2007 growth rates show us that using this method, Azerbaijan, Timor-Leste, Macau and Angola lead the pack as the best places in the world. Obviously this doesn't make sense, so a variety of other measurements have been devised to help us figure out the best country. Stability if that's what you're looking for, move to the Vatican apparently. "Human Development Index", hop a plane for Iceland. The world map of happiness says that Denmark is the best. Standard of living, get yourself to Norway. Michael Moore seems to favour the Norwegians as well:

By far my favourite though comes from the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness. Upon ascending to the throne unexpectedly in 1972 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck responded to being criticized for the lack of economic growth in his country by committing his nation to a new idea for development. Instead of measuring material growth, a notion that has been leading the planet towards self-destruction, a nation should be judged on the inner happiness of its populace. I can already picture the eye-rolling economist, aghast at the thought of replacing his objective, number-based system with something as subjective and ephemeral as "happiness". The second problem he might point out is the small size of Bhutan, around 700,000 people in a country no larger than Switzerland is much easier to run in a way that is consistent with Buddhist beliefs than say, Brazil. A commitment to the preservation of their culture, education and the environment (60% of the land must be forested, and did I mention there isn't a single traffic light in the country...) seem to be the pillars the system is based on. Some success is clearly evident as although wealth when measured by traditional measures of GDP still ranks low, there was an increase in life expectancy of 19 years between 1984 and 1998. Problems do exist, TV and the internet was just introduced in 1999 and some say it is leading some youth astray, there is a Nepalese minority that is being forced out and democracy is just being introduced. However, in a study conducted by Britain's University of Leicester and featured in Business Week magazine, Bhutan came in 8th place in the World's Happiest Country list. Not bad considering income was a factor and their GDP per capita is only $1400.

So where does this bring us? The 20th century was one where the search for economic growth and material wealth outweighed all other factors. Perhaps the world is beginning to wake up and will try to link these measurements at least in part to sustainable growth. In March 2005, Britain said it would begin developing such an "index of well-being," taking into account not only income but mental illness, civility, access to parks and crime rates. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all also working on new national "wealth" measurements. The biggest obstacle of course is the subjectivity of any measurements such as happiness and spirituality. However, what we can learn from this idea is simple: don't be greedy. Consumerism gone rampant has brought us the weekend zombie mall march and the incessant roar of the endless parade of cars streaming past my flat. As for me, I can still find my happiness, a five day vacation and a camping trip into the wilderness.


virgomonkey said...

I've got two movie recommendations for you.

1)Idiocracy: Showing the rapid decline of society and where we will be in the year of 2505. (The focus is on the US)

2)The Gods Must Be Crazy: A must see for its innocence. Sounds like the kind of pure-form simple society that you speak of in this post.

Both of these movies are comedies. However, both of these films have a deep message that I think you would appreciate.