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Productivity not the right measure of happiness

January 28, 2013

There’s a story of a fisherman who might be down the coast of NSW, living in Margaret River or on Kurrimine Beach in Queensland. Each day he fishes for what he needs, sells a little and takes the rest home for his wife and kids. They cook it on the BBQ or sometime he makes the most delicious fish stock. The kids have what they need and his wife loves her job as a teacher at the local school or maybe she works in the local organic fruit and vegetable shop.

One day a business man on holiday starts chatting to the man as he fishes off the wharf and is impressed at the quality of the fish and how many there are. He admires the man’s rod, old that it is and ask what he does as his day job. “This is my day job,” says the fisherman pulling out some more SPF30 and rubbing it on his neck, back of hands, all the places he reminds the kids about.

The businessman’s eyes widen; he’s part of Australia’s Entrepreneurs Organisation and always looking for ways to achieve greater business success and an enriched personal life. He’s got a small business, the nice house in the city with a too large mortgage, drinks expensive wine although he can’t really tell the difference between a $12 bottle and a $50 one. When he’s sitting at traffic lights and the Iphone is in the glove box he does wish he had more time to play golf or take deep ocean swims.

“So how many do you catch in a day?” asks the businessman.

“Not too many but usually enough for the family and to sell to the local restaurant,” says the fisherman.

“Why don’t you catch more?” says the businessman.

“What would I do with them?” says the fisherman.

“You could sell more and earn more money. Then with it you could buy a boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. If you employed a couple of people you could earn enough to open up a fish processing factory right here and sell to the supermarkets. There’s good contracts which might earn you enough to get a couple of trawlers. You could end up rich like me, pay for all the kids’ toys and get some for you too. What about a jet ski, eh?! ” In the businessman’s head he could already see himself as the guy’s business partner. It’d be easy and great opportunity to get out of town regularly and get another car.

“Then what would I do?” asked the fisherman.

“Then,” said the businessman, “you could really enjoy life.”

The fisherman pulled some more bait from his esky and nodded his head. “What do you think I am doing now?”

One part of being a Buddhist is to focus on managing desire. But it’s not about eliminating it in a totalitarian human transformation. It’s about recognising it and understanding that attaining the object of desire is unconnected to fulfilment.

Last year the United Nations released its World Happiness Report which used a series of values to rank countries in terms of its social happiness. Unsurprising it is not wealth alone that contributes to a country’s higher happiness rating but social networks and an absence of corruption. And at the individual level, it’s health and community relationships, job security and stable families that are crucial. Happiness doesn’t increase at the same rate as wealth but instead it’s a relatively low threshold after which it takes a lot more wealth to increase happiness after the basic needs are met. In fact the more ability people have to consume, the less happy they are with the new goods.

In Raj Patel’s book The Value of Nothing he writes of how the gross national happiness of Bhutan went down after satellite televisions started being imported. “Television’s images of impossible lifestyles, body shapes, clothes and accessories have resulted in not only a deep resentment but a crime wave, as young people steal in order to afford the trinkets sold on Rupert Murdoch’s Start Network.”

To be happy you need to forget to try to be happy, said John Stuart Mill. If education, environment and equity became government priorities. If the economy was regulated so decision making wasn’t determined by the privileged for their own increased wealth creation then I think we could achieve this.

It’s not that every one of us should become fishermen. But it is about recognising a value system that’s about more than productivity and productive people, productive education and economic indicators driven by short term profits that benefit the already wealthy.

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One Comment
  1. I’ve got to borrow that book by Raj Patel, its true that value has been falsely ascribed to vanity items (and humungous properties in Portsea with giant fences!) that do not contribute to happiness which is often connected to simple daily pleasures and other good people.

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