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The New Economics: Are You People-Rich?

Posted: 01/26/10 01:17 PM ET

Our society measures wealth by how many dollars you have in the bank, but many other cultures around the world count prosperity by how many good relationships you enjoy in your life.

If you're interested in counting up your people-wealth, here's one way to do it: ask yourself How many people do you have in your life who warm your heart when you see them? And how often do you see them? It doesn't matter if they're a blood relative, a co-worker you have lunch with or the shopkeeper at the local cheese shop who welcomes you by name with a warm smile. People who touch our hearts are the true wealth in our lives.

And while it's nice if some of these folks are family members, it's not always necessary. So many of us now live thousands of miles from relatives and we're not always emotionally close to those with whom we share genetic ties. As we relocalize our lives both for ethical reasons and because travel has become so expensive and unpleasant, it becomes more and more important for us to "love the ones we're with" if we can't be with those we're related to.

How we spend our time has a lot to do with how people-rich we become. The "work-to-spend" pattern locks us into devoting more and more time to money-making activities to pay for the shopping sprees we indulge in to soothe our loneliness or to keep up with the Joneses -- leaving less and less time available for just hanging out with not only our most intimate loved ones but also other people in our community.

Folks in many traditional communities around the world seem to have found far more ways to build their people-wealth than many Americans. In fact, Americans often spend big bucks travelling to European towns and "unspoiled" villages in other countries just to experience the sense of what it's like to live in communities more tightly knit than our own.

We forget that Americans too used to know how people-wealth was built and enjoyed. Most of our grandparents and great-grandparents knew how to put down roots, connect deeply with a place (including not only its people but its nature and history), patronize local merchants and farmers year after year, and participate in local groups that met regularly until their members became treasured friends.

All it takes to start building your own people-wealth is a shift in values. Put less time and energy into "making it big" and more into being with people around you. They won't be perfect, of course, but then neither are we. It takes a certain amount of tolerance to accept and enjoy the delightful human diversity of a whole village or neighborhood, but the rewards are profound.

What's encouraging is the trend among many young people towards valuing their social connections over the mindless pursuit of big bucks. Perhaps they grew tired of watching their parents "getting and spending" with no time for each other or their kids.

More power to them. All the happiness and health research that scientists have done over the last few decades endorses this shift away from mindless earning and consuming and towards building a simpler, genuinely richer and more nature-connected life.

Perhaps we should support the New Economists who want to measure our national prosperity not according to the old statistics (the GNP or Gross National Product) that count only money transactions but by using the new economic measures like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Gross National Happiness (GNP) and the Happy Planet Index. These are the measures that track the real happiness and good health of our citizens.

Resources:
The New Economics Foundation www.neweconomics.org
Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin (Harper, 2010)
Deep Economy by Bill McKibben (Times Books 2007)