It may seem absurd to believe that a 'primitive' culture in the Himalaya has anything to teach our industrialized society. But our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth, an interconnectedness that ancient cultures have never abandoned.
THE ECONOMICS OF HAPPINESS
Thirty-three years ago, I watched as a culture that had been sealed off from the rest of the world was suddenly thrown open to economic development. Witnessing the impact of the modern world on an ancient culture gave me insights into how economic globalisation creates feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, particularly in the young, and how those psychological pressures are helping to spread the global consumer culture. Since that time I have been promoting the rebuilding of community and local economies as the foundation of an ‘Economics of Happiness’.
When I first arrived in Ladakh or “Little Tibet”, a region high on the Tibetan plateau, it was still largely unaffected by either colonialism or the global economy. For political reasons, the region had been isolated for many centuries, both geographically and culturally. During several years of living amongst the Ladakhis, I found them to be the most contented and happy people I had ever encountered. Their sense of self-worth was deep and solid; smiles and laughter were their constant companions. Then in 1975, the Indian government abruptly opened Ladakh to imported food and consumer goods, to tourism and the global media, to western education and other trappings of the ‘development’ process. Romanticised impressions of the West gleaned from media, advertising and fleeting encounters with tourists had an immediate and profound impact on the Ladakhis. The sanitised and glamorised images of the urban consumer culture created the illusion that people outside Ladakh enjoyed infinite wealth and leisure. By contrast, working in the fields and providing for one's own needs seemed backward and primitive. Suddenly, everything from their food and clothing to their houses and language seemed inferior. The young were particularly affected, quickly succumbing to a sense of insecurity and self-rejection. The use of a dangerous skin-lightening cream called "Fair and Lovely" became widespread, symbolising the newly-created need to imitate the distant role models – western, urban, blonde – provided by the media.
Over the past three decades, I have studied this process in numerous cultures around the world and discovered that we are all victims of these same psychological pressures. In virtually every industrialised country, including the US, UK, Australia, France and Japan, there is now what is described as an epidemic of depression. In Japan, it is estimated that one million youths refuse to leave their bedrooms – sometimes for decades – in a phenomenon known as “Hikikomori.” In the US, a growing proportion of young girls are so deeply insecure about their appearance they fall victim to anorexia and bulimia, or undergo expensive cosmetic surgery.
As global media reaches into the most remote parts of the planet, the underlying message is: "if you want to be seen, heard, appreciated and loved you must have the right running shoes, the most fashionable jeans, the latest toys and gadgets”. But the reality is that consumption leads to greater competition and envy, leaving children more isolated, insecure, and unhappy, thereby fuelling still more frantic consumption in a vicious cycle. In this way, the global consumer culture taps into the fundamental human need for love and twists it into insatiable greed.
Today, more and more people are waking up to fact that, because of its environmental costs, an economic model based on endless consumption is simply unsustainable. But because there is far less understanding of the social and psychological costs of the consumer culture, most believe that making the changes necessary to save the environment will entail great sacrifice. Once we realise that oil-dependent global growth is not only responsible for climate change and other environmental crises, but also for increased stress, anxiety and social breakdown, then it becomes clear that the steps we need to take to heal the planet are the same as those needed to heal ourselves: both require reducing the scale of the economy – in other words localising rather than continuing to globalise economic activity. My sense from interviewing people in four continents is that this realisation is already growing, and has the potential to spread like wildfire.
HELENA NORBERG-HODGE is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, a non-profit organisation involved in grass-roots initiatves to promote localisation with a particular emphasis on food and farming, in order to strengthen cultural and biological diversity.
Norberg-Hodge is a co-founder of the International Forum on Globalization, an alliance of sixty leading activists, scholars, economists, researchers and writers formed to stimulate new thinking, joint activity and public education in response to economic globalisation.
Norberg-Hodge is also involved with the Global Ecovillage Network and directs the Ladakh Project, renowned for its groundbreaking work in sustainable development on the Tibetan plateau. She is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the Alternative Nobel Prize.
Norberg-Hodge is a leading analyst of the impact of the global economy on cultures around the world. A linguist by training, she was educated in Sweden, Germany, England and the United States. She has lectured and taught extensively around the world from the Smithsonian Institution to Harvard and Oxford Universities.
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