Katherine Gibson, Western Sydney University; Jenny Cameron, University of Newcastle, and Stephen Healy, Western Sydney University

This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.


Understandings of happiness are shifting. More and more research is finding that we cannot spend our way to happiness. Increasing incomes do not necessarily lead to increasing happiness. Even in a country such as China, average incomes have increased fourfold since the 1990s while life satisfaction has decreased over the same period.

Research is also finding that happiness is less an individual matter and more a collective endeavour. The quality of our relationships with others is pivotal. These others include those closest to us (our immediate family and friends) as well as those unknown to us but with whom we comprise a society.

In a climate-changing world, this relational understanding of happiness also has to extend to our relationship with the planet on which our survival depends.

The shift in understanding happiness could not be better summed up than in the words of the first elected prime minister of Bhutan in 2008:

We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realising our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.

In our research on economies for people and the environment, we have focused on our relationships with others. Thus, instead of happiness, we talk of “surviving well together”. The idea of survival might seem too linked to material sufficiency, but for us it reframes our human-centred view of the world and locates humans as part of the web of life on Earth.

Surviving well together means taking into account not just our individual happiness and well-being but the happiness and well-being of others and the planet on which we live.

Surviving well together means considering how we live our lives on multiple fronts.

The five elements of well-being

One starting point is our own well-being. Consistent with the research on happiness, well-being is not about material wealth. In a comprehensive study of people in more than 150 countries, Tom Rath and Jim Harter found that there are five essential elements to well-being:

Well-being is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact.

This definition can help us think about what we do with our time. Are we using our time to cultivate all the elements of our well-being? Are we overworking to the detriment of our relationships, physical health and community contributions?

Downshifters are one group of people who take these questions seriously. They downsize their paid work to have more time for other kinds of “work” – for nurturing their relationships, communities, environments. Some sea changers or tree changers are likewise experimenting with ways of surviving well by moving to areas with cheaper housing and shorter commutes.

Not all of us have these options for surviving well (or what are sometimes disparagingly call “lifestyle choices”). Surviving well is also a matter of surviving well together by ensuring that there are social supports for all – such as decent and affordable health care, education, public transport and housing – safe working conditions and reasonable working hours; and jobs that are fairly paid.

With these conditions in place we can start to create societies in which all have an opportunity to achieve the five elements of well-being.

At the same time it is important that we do not forget what the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood described as:

… the many unrecognised, shadow places that provide our material and ecological support.

As the climate crises deepens, the importance of attending to our ecological supports becomes all the more evident and pressing. Sadly, it all too often takes tragic events such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh to remind us of those people whose work in shadow places provides our material support.

We can take individual steps to care for our own well-being while insisting our governments provide social supports for all. So too, in an interconnected world, we can take individual steps to change our relationship with shadow places by considering what and how much we consume, while also pressuring governments and corporations and supporting the work of labour and environmental rights organisations.

Moving to an alternative sensibility

With the shift in understandings of happiness, various indicators and indices have been developed to more accurately reflect the well-being of nations. These include the Gross National Happiness measure devised and used by the Bhutanese government; the Genuine Progress Indicator adopted in the US by the states of Maryland in 2010 and Vermont in 2012; and the World Happiness Report, developed by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations.

In various ways these measures delink money from happiness and recognise that happiness is a collective rather than individual pursuit. Their downside is that they reduce the state of a nation to a single measure and lead to the inevitable ranking of nations. They have limited capacity to generate what the sociologist John Law calls “an alternative sensibility” that recognises the complexity of any given context.

We have been interested in the potential of what we call “relational metrics”. These are tools such as a 24-hour clock, which people can use to track their use of time and evaluate whether it is being spent in ways that support or undermine their ability to survive well. Or the ecological footprint calculators, which people can use to assess the impact of their lives on the well-being of the planet. Or the Ethical Interconnection Checklist, which people can use to consider the shadow places that are part and parcel of how we survive well.

It is practical tools such as these that might help us shift from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of surviving well together.


This article is based on an essay in the collection On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century (UWA Publishing, June 2015).

You can read other articles in the series here.

The Conversation

Katherine Gibson, Professor of Economic Geography, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Jenny Cameron, Associate Professor, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle, and Stephen Healy, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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