How happy are you? Where do you rate on a misery-to-glee scale? After giving it some thought and consulting a thesaurus, I decided I’d have to rate myself somewhere in the neighborhood of convivial. I was hoping for mirthful or glad, but let’s face it…this just hasn’t been that kind of year. I’m thankful to have stayed above glum.
But what kind of environmental footprint did I leave to achieve this level of contentedness? What resource crater did I create to achieve a mark that basically amounts to lots of stress and busying around, peppered with some nice evenings with my fiancée, a couple of fun parties and a few good meals? As an American, the answer is a big one.
The London-based New Economics Foundation ( www.neweconomics.org/gen/) recently released the results of its second Happy Planet Index ( www.happyplanetindex.org/). The HPI measures the ecological efficiency with which human happiness is delivered in 143 countries around the world. The winner, as you might have guessed, is not the United States. As a matter of fact, we came in at a rather disappointing 114th. (As we come off our Fourth of July celebrations, it’s worth noting that the British came in at a more impressive 74th.)
The number one slot went not to China, India or another hyper-industrialized economic juggernaut, but to Costa Rica. The country’s inhabitants report high life satisfaction, they live longer than Americans and they have an environmental footprint that is approximately one quarter that of the average U.S. citizen. The message is pretty clear: the enjoyment we take from life does not have to be proportionate to the resources we take from the planet.
For much of the past century, much of the world has looked to follow the U.S. model, hoping to be more like us. Now is the time for us to look back and set a new example; it’s time for us to be more like the rest of the world. Others have had to do more with less and, as Costa Rica has shown us, that can be a good thing. What good is having and using more if in the end we’re not happy anyway?
The trend toward efficiency is happening in this country and, with American innovation pushing it, that can be an exciting prospect. In the built community, this trend is manifesting itself in many ways. Energy and resource efficiency are on the minds of owners and architects, and so is space efficiency. With the economy forcing us to reexamine how we live and work, businesses and homeowners alike are thinking about the best use of space. For quite a while the universal thinking was that bigger was better, but as energy costs climb, it’s looking more like bigger is just simply…bigger…and often more expensive. It’s exciting to see more innovative mixed-use buildings and community developments replacing McMansions and endless sprawl.
Myself, I recently moved from my own apartment to share a condo with my fiancée. The space the two of us share now is smaller than the space I had to myself before. The move forced me to examine my own lifestyle and all the stuff I had accumulated throughout the years. It caused me to recognize all the space and resources I was wasting. In the end, downsizing was a very positive and liberating thing for me. Thanks to a good deal of organization and efficiency (for which I can take very little credit for), everything fits nicely and we both are very comfortable in our new home. There is less space to heat and cool, less resource-sucking stuff to fill it with and, perhaps best of all, less space to clean. That fact alone may raise me from convivial to chipper on that misery-to-glee scale I proposed.
Think about using and taking less in your projects and in your lives. Some of the most exciting stories we hear are those projects that use tried-and-true natural ventilation, daylighting and space efficiency so well they don’t need things like solar panels or wind-power offsets. Turns out that using less also can mean spending less, which these days can increase anyone’s happiness index.
So let’s take a lesson from our friends in Costa Rica. There’s a great satisfaction in getting the most out of the least. A little efficiency can go a long way. You should see my closet.
Jim Schneider, LEED AP