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Film Review: The Economics of Happiness

Why are we so lonely when we have so much? Beyond the unhappiness of a disconnected world are new—and very old—ways we can turn it around.

Economics of happiness poster“Lonely people have never been happy people. And globalization is creating a very lonely planet.” So says activist and author Vandana Shiva in The Economics of Happiness, an incisive documentary that links today’s global crises (climate change, terrorism, the financial crash) with personal malaise (rising levels of depression and the pervasive emptiness of consumer society). The cause? The macroeconomic structure of globalization, a massive conglomerate of megabanks, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, all constantly expanding in a deregulated environment that takes profit, and never people, as the raison d’être of all things.

The cure? Localization. A return to community, where people can forge connections with neighbors instead of advertising models, and buy food from a nearby farmer instead of the industrial agricultural machine. It is the economic and social bond among fellow citizens, and their very interdependence, insists economic analyst Helena Norberg-Hodge, that allows them to be truly happy.

Economics of Happiness video still
Watch the trailer.

Interdependence is not something to which we aspire in a culture that glorifies the self-reliant pioneer and solo entrepreneur. Nor is the local, as the film poignantly shows through the case of Ladakh, a remote Himalayan village that went from self-sufficient, equitable, and compassionate to fragmented, poor, and violent due to economic development along a Western model and the introduction of cheap imported foods and Western
media. Globalization convinced the
Ladakhis that their culture was shamefully primitive, and they abandoned its best features within a decade, deciding, as so many of us do, to strive instead for a cosmopolitan, “global” life.

The Economics of Happiness captures the incredible waste of global capitalism through eye-opening examples: apples grown in the U.K., flown to South Africa to be waxed, then flown back and sold in British supermarkets; tuna caught on the East Coast of the United States, shipped to Japan for processing, then sold back in America.

Clean Greens photo by Camille Sheppard Dohrn
"Localization is the
economics of happiness."

Director Helena Norberg-Hodge talks to YES! about how communities can get happy
by going local.

The film also reveals the profound unhappiness of such a disconnected world: Ladakhi elders are brought on a “reality tour” of Western culture and witness the desperate loneliness of an old-age nursing home. The sadness in their eyes as they view the end result of a profit-obsessed, people-empty economic system is an anti-globalization statement that needs no words.

While eight “inconvenient truths” about globalization—that it breeds insecurity, accelerates climate change, increases conflict, and so forth—dominate the first half of the film, the second half restores hope. Its renowned pro-localization cast, including David Korten, Juliet Schor, and Rob Hopkins, inspires belief that ordinary citizens have the power to delegitimize the institutions of globalization, and reclaim meaningful lives through local ventures. Vivid scenes of farmers’ markets, renewable energy initiatives, and community building from Nicaragua to France, Japan, and Australia show that happiness is possible—and we can welcome it in by embracing the bounty of life that lies close to home.


Kristy Leissle wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Kristy is a writer and professor of Global Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell, where she researches the cocoa-chocolate trade.

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