In search of happiness....

Webster and I knew each other well enough to think, despite not being in touch for long, we would just pick up and resume close friendship. That is a mistake.

We are all trying to find our way home.

On 2 July, 2018, I received news of the death of my friend and brother Dr. Webster Whande. The news came as a cruel reminder for me to “never leave till tomorrow what I can do today.” It also raised questions about why, when it comes to choices about spending time with family and friends, many of us act or react contrary to our own beliefs.

Webster's death has shone the light on some important life lessons, not least of which is the importance to stay in touch. Webster and I became friends in the early stages of our career. And close brothers in the struggle for social and environmental justice. 

Many years ago, Webster and his family moved to Cape Town, South Africa. Ever since, my visits to Cape Town have been pleasant and reassuring, in the knowledge that I would catch up with Webster, or when the chips were down he would have my back. And he had my back on many occasions and on multiple fronts - including most recently when I was researching an article on the Cape Town water crisis. 

We havent been in contact so much in the last six weeks, largely because we know each other well enough just to pick up and resume close friendship at any time. It just goes to show what a mistake thinking like this is!

But that thinking is far more ordinary and common than many might think. The question has to be why do we do it? Why do we allow 'life' to get in the way of spending that quality time with friends and family? Why do we leave until tomorrow, the investments in friendship and family that we can make today?

In my professional life I’ve had the opportunity to explore a similar question about what makes us happy and how we make choices in that regard. I've encountered many people who have argued that the holy grail of happiness is spending time with family and friends.

Yet when asked how much time they spend with friends and family, the answer is invariably ‘very little’ - comparatively.

Odd, right? Why do we make choices that are inconsistent with what we believe to be the secret to achieving happiness? We are born with the ability to care for each other and spend time with each other. And that makes our childhoods happier. But as we grow, we are sociliased into accepting that the pursuit ofother objectives is more important. Consequently, we invest less time in the people who make us happy. 

Why? The answer may be hidden in our pockets. We’ve become a victim of an economic system that we designed to make life easier, not harder for us. We now find ourselves in this space where investing in our 'social currency' - spending time with family and friends, or child rearing, or looking after parents is a sign of unproductive behavior. Where showing and sharing compassion is unproductive emotion. 

How did we get here? And how do we move forward? Well, how we got here is not nearly as important as where we are going.

This question is not new. But we might be closer to finding an answer to it: reform of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The many people who have looked into reforming GDP may have moved us closer to finding the answer to happiness - and putting humanity on a happier trajectory. The latest efforts are led by my colleagues at UN Environment who are developing an “Inclusive Wealth Index” designed to augment GDP as a measure of growth, through enriching it with the ability to measure ''well-being and sustainability.''

The inclusive wealth measure takes into account both the benefits people derive from nature, such as water, clean air or recreation, as well as productive aspects of human resources, such as skills, education and health, along with products and services that we use in everyday life, such as buildings, machines and roads. It will also include 'social capital' - the value of our relationships.

It assesses whether wealth, growth, and societal progress we enjoy today can be sustained tomorrow.

To be sure, while the inclusive wealth index is an important part of the answer,it is not everything. We still have to work on preventing the sort of governance failure that led people like Webster and I leaving our country of birth, Zimbabwe, in search of better prospects elsewhere. 

During Robert Mugabe’s reign, Zimbabwe suffered tremendous failure of institutions of economic and political governance, as well as basic social institutions. And for many, that failure put life on hold. Their hopes and dreams ruined by a society and system that should have been their insurance against an uncertain future. 

It is too late for Webster and I to find each other. But our personal example, while tragic, is not unique. It is yet another red flag for what has become a global crisis. The social currency that holds us together is fast depreciating. We are making decisions that are inconsistent with what we hold dear and believe to be the key to our happiness. 

It is not too late for the rest of humanity to change, for the better, the metrics that shape our life choices. We can reform our compass for growth and happiness. And find our way home. Together.