Working on one’s own personal happiness cannot just be an egotistical pursuit, personal development must be expanded beyond the number of languages you learned or the number of special places you’ve visited if it is to really gain meaning – and in parallel ways, growth and development have been shaping talk and policy about entire countries, but commonly fail to take into account enough measures other than GDP.
Development actually is a wider, better, concept.
Measures of a country’s level of development include not just GDP or the (in)famous “dollars per day” on which an average person is living, but also things such as literacy, years of education, infant mortality, life expectancy, economic and gender equality, and more. Even those counts can make the common idea that the Western, rich, industrialized countries are the example to follow a bit more complicated. For example, it has been suggested that the “obesity epidemic” may reduce the present younger generation’s life expectancy. Such discussions once again focus on just one measure, years of life, but still don’t go into quality of life. – Hardly the progress we are looking for.
Commonly, the notion that is involved with “development” and “progress” is just that, though: They predominantly mean industrial/technological advances, measured by a rise in GDP, and showing “our,” “Western” predominance – in almost the same evolutionist train of thought which, in colonial times, just knew that “we” – the Western, industrial, democratic countries – were civilization, whereas “they” were barbarians who had to be shown the light.
The great problem is not that democracy or capitalism are not a progress over autocracies and feudal systems, nor that technological advances haven’t contributed to better living conditions. Having countries where the average person consumes a few times more resources than are available on average be the example to others, and operate under the idea that things don’t need to change much – “we are already developed” – however, is a big problem.
As the well-known image from research into the ecological footprint pointed out, we’d need three to five planets Earth if everyone were to live like an average European, let alone an average American (and that’s at present population numbers).
To see countries which would have the means to do a lot, to work towards something better – and which also see that “progress” in material consumption and economic growth are increasingly becoming uneconomic, as they do not contribute to well-being, nor indeed to healthy lives – only look for advances in the next consumer gadgets, growth in GDP and material consumption even if it is based on (financial and ecological) debt, is just a tragedy.
Starting to look at what we actually mean when we talk of development, taking into account other measures than those most often used, e.g. biodiversity, projects like the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare or the Happy Planet Index shift the ranking around quite a bit. It still helps to have modern education and health care, but “the economy” (as measured only by GDP, no matter whether that’s from financial services, gadgets, or goods that are actually needed and wanted to do something with them) is not quite the end-all-and-be-all.
In fact, thinking towards the future, a twist emerges: Studies on who – developed or developing countries – will suffer worst from things such as climate change impacts are published regularly. The usual verdict is that it will be developing countries, and the poor everywhere, because they have fewer resources to use in adapting – on the other hand, though, when you have less to lose and you change from one difficult way of life to another, you may not notice much.
When you need to change from thinking that everything is as it always will be, with cheap transport by car and ever-cheaper journeys by plane, food simply appearing in the supermarket, and lives defined by the stuff you amass, to a different way of life that requires more than primal greed, any change that’s not making things even easier, more comfortable, but implies loss, will be extremely hurting.
Even if climate change and peak oil did not cause (a need for) changes, however, we can see that “developed” ways of life have their problems – just as “underdeveloped” ones do, of course.
So, it’s about time more creativity is put into real development that aims for the middle – ways to achieve decent lives giving a better chance for happiness. In these, both countries which are currently seen as developed and those which are (seen as) underdeveloped are, in fact, developing countries. – We are all in developing countries.
We all also have a chance to become exemplary for this new path – both countries and basically every single one of us as an individual and a member of social circles and communities -, as this middle ground is a new challenge, whether approaching it from poverty and having to do better, or from affluence and having to do with less. Either way, it is a step towards real living, finding happiness in what is and needs to be, for life to go on and be good. Now, there’s a challenge for (personal) development.