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Why economic development alone cannot deliver happiness

We are on the road to economic development. At the end of this road we will find some wonderful prizes: affluence, freedom from hunger, higher life expectancy and enhanced quality of life. Right?

Before you accept the truth of that statement, allow me to take you on a brief tour of the developed world. Let’s start with the USA. 30 per cent of the American population is thought to be obese, and nearly 5 per cent is morbidly obese. Obesity is expected to soon overtake smoking as the top killer in the country.

In England, two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, and future generations are now thought to be threatened with lower life expectancy. The economic costs of obesity in England have been estimated at over £ 3.5 billion (over KShs 500 billion).

What is causing this crisis? On the face of it, a variety of factors are thought to be responsible. A key reason is the widespread availability of very cheap junk food. In America, the spending on food as a proportion of disposable income has come down from 25 per cent fifty years ago, to just 10 per cent today. A second reason is the reduced need to exercise that a sedentary lifestyle brings. A third is thought to be the almost hypnotic influence of advertisers, who inundate Americans and Europeans with positive messages about junk food and sweets.

The scale of the predicament has led to some rather drastic measures being advocated, such as a ‘fat tax’ on certain foods and a ban on advertising of junk food to children. We also have the curious spectacle of a parliamentary committee in Britain urging the government to promote walking and cycling as ‘alternative’ modes of transport to fight off the obesity crisis. Instructive for us in Kenya, is it not, as we fight for the economic growth that will allow more of us to use the car and the bus!

Some individuals in rich countries have taken to a rather more desperate measure. It has been widely reported recently that more and more people are resorting to ‘stomach stapling’ – the sealing off of part of the stomach and the creation of a ‘gastric bypass’ straight to the small intestine. In other words, these people have given up all hope of fighting their obesity by controlling their tongues; they have to fight it by physically reducing the size of their stomachs to that of a golf ball! Over 250,000 people are believed to have had this operation done in 2003.

There are times you have to just stop and wonder about the world we live in. 1.7 billion people are estimated to be overweight or obese, and can’t seem to stop eating themselves to an early grave. Yet on any given day, 800 million people are thought to go to bed hungry. On average, more than 800 Americans are estimated to die every day because they are too fat; 24,000 poor people die around the world every day due to hunger and related causes. Americans are thought to spend as much as US$ 40 billion every year trying to lose weight. That is nearly 4 times Kenya’s annual GDP.

Because we have chosen to put up walls everywhere on the planet, fencing off and protecting countries, economies and markets, we have poverty amidst plenty. There is more than enough food in the world today for every single person on the planet to lead a healthy life, but the United Nations’ World Food Programme estimates that one person in seven is left hungry. We are only able to ignore those hungry people because they do not sit at the table with us and watch us indulge ourselves.

Economic development can lead to some other unexpected consequences. In South Africa, there has been a surge in cases of anorexia and bulimia in young African women. In other words, more and more women are either starving themselves or deliberately throwing up what they eat. Why? Because as they become increasingly affluent, they have accepted the western stereotype of shape and physical size.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported recently that where western culture has taken hold, black women, just like white women, always want to be slimmer. The traditional curvaceous African figure is being abandoned as ‘backward’; the stick insect look is in vogue. Many young South African women, rather than choose clothes to fit their natural figures, are trying to change their bodies to fit a warped sense of fashion. They have thus gone full circle: from the hunger of poverty to the hunger of affluence. The irony is that studies have shown that in countries where a little plumpness is celebrated, there are none of the associated health problems of the West.

So, we are unhappy when we are poor and unhappy when we are not. What is it with us human beings? Are we programmed to be discontented, regardless of external circumstances? Clearly, the issue is not about our national GDP or our individual bank balances. We are entirely capable of making ourselves miserable, regardless of income. The problem lies squarely inside our own heads. Until we recognise this, happiness will remain a mirage – a shimmering, illusory oasis in the desert of our struggle.

Rich or poor, we are the slaves of our egos and senses. Some are incapable of resisting the lure of the tongue, tormenting themselves to the point of madness by letting food become the whole point of their lives. They can literally eat themselves stupid, until artificially reducing the size of the stomach is the only way out. Others are led by the ego and the need to look good and feel attractive; this group is willing to starve itself silly. Instead of focusing on our inter-connectedness as a species, we construct an artificial sense of individuality. It is this self-centredness that causes our egos to run riot and ruin our well-being.

Economic growth will do nothing for our happiness and peace of mind if we cannot find harmony within ourselves. We will take on the same madness we see in affluent countries today: dangerously obese people co-existing with dangerously emaciated ones, all tormented by a lack of mental balance.

The Upanishads, a collection of sacred Hindu treatises written some 2,500 years ago, have an interesting way of looking at it. They say that your body is like a chariot drawn by five powerful horses, the five senses. These horses gallop from birth towards death, pursuing the objects of their desire. The discriminating intellect is the charioteer, whose job it is not to let the horses drive you over a cliff. The reins he holds are the mind – your thoughts and emotions. When the reins of the mind do not control these horses, they gallop where they please, taking the road they like best – the road of personal satisfaction and pleasure. That road leads straight to the cliff.

So ask yourself as you hurtle along: who’s in charge – you or the horses?

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