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Happy in Hungary

Fifty leading sustainability experts explore the secret to happiness

Submitted by: Laura Musikanski

Posted: Oct 12, 2011 – 11:17 PM EST

Tags: happiness, sustainability, community, community development, resilient, public policy, hungary


By Laura Musikanski and John de Graaf

It may be the best-kept secret in the world of sustainability. Every year, the Balaton Group brings together about 50 leading sustainability experts from around the planet to share their knowledge and ideas. This year, as leaders of The Happiness Initiative, we were invited to participate – John as a former Balaton attendee, film producer, author and advocate, and Laura as a Donella Meadows fellow, one of eight chosen as emerging international sustainability leaders. We went to learn how to leverage our efforts to achieve greater well-being for all, and came away with some enlightening lessons.

The Balaton Group was formed in 1982 on the shores of Hungary’s largest lake, because Hungary was then one of the few places where scientists and community activists from socialist and capitalist countries could freely meet. The group was founded by Donella and Dennis Meadows, two of the authors of the influential and groundbreaking book, Limits to Growth.

Limits to Growth presented a systems analysis of world population, food production, resources and pollution. It contained models that predicted probable futures if population, food production, industrialization, pollution and resource depletion continued to increase at 1970s rates. The book also suggested what could happen under other scenarios; for instance, if everything were recycled so there were no more waste, or if population or economic growth rates were reduced. Simply put, the authors warmed of a dire future if we did not change the trends.

Donella Meadows died suddenly in 2001, but the group has continued to meet annually in Hungary for 30 years to discuss and expand the field of sustainability. Members of the group have included such luminaries as Manfred Max Neef, creator of the human development model of fundamental needs, John Holmberg, a founder of Sweden’s “Natural Step” program, best-selling authors Vicki Robin and Hunter Lovins, and Alan AtKisson, former director of the United Nations Earth Charter.

We were honored to present The Happiness Initiative, outlined in our earlier CSRwire posts to the group and to share in the wider discussions. Here is what we learned:

  • Most predictions in Limits to Growth have come true. Today, the models actually suggest it is too late to prevent serious ecological damage, and we must prepare for a very different future.
  • This means resilience. Junko Edahiro of Japan for Sustainablity explained that in her country, “3-11” denotes the day when an earthquakes, a tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown caused nature- and human-made disasters. People across the country were affected. But where there was community, people who needed care got it. Where there was renewable energy, people had light and heat. Where there was urban agriculture, people had food. These are some of the necessities for creating a resilient society. 
  • Across the world, “happiness” means different things in different cultures, but some things are clear no matter what the culture: the influence of hyper-consumerism, poverty and resource depletion means deleterious effects to everyone’s well-being, sustainability and happiness.  

We were delighted to see other members of the group agreed that The Happiness Initiative provides a useful way forward — a way to build community in any neighborhood or city. Along with Swapan from India, Cuauhtemoc from Mexico, Justine from Namibia, Gyongyver from Hungary, John from Sweden and Junko from Japan, we developed a proposal to spread the Initiative internationally. 

We believe The Happiness Initiative is the only effort of its kind in the United States that responds to the United Nations’ recent resolution “Happiness, towards a holistic approach to development,” which calls on governments to “pursue happiness” and to measure well-being instead of just GDP and profit. On October 17th, we’ll be launching our new, shorter well-being measurement survey, developed for us by Dr. Ryan Howell and his team at San Francisco State University. You’ll find it, and tools to conduct your own happiness initiative at:

About Laura Musikanski

Laura Musikanski, JD, MBA, is the Executive Director of Sustainable Seattle. She is a lawyer and an MBA with a certificate in environmental management and policy from the University of Washington.

About John de Graaf

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker and the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time. He is the author of the forthcoming book, What’s the Economy for, Anyway? Why it’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness and co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. His most recent film is “What’s the economy for, Anyway?” He teaches occasionally at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and lives in Seattle.

Readers: Does a resilient community equal a sustainable one? Tell on Talkback!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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