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The year 1956 was, in many ways, a simpler time. The sound of easy-listening tunes swung through the speakers of stereos, while families lived within their means, enjoyed outings to the cinema and going out with families and close friends. There was no such thing as the Internet or mobile phones, meaning people communicated mostly face-to-face, and televisions were only just becoming available. Supermarkets and malls were rare to non-existent, with most shopping done at the local corner store. Crime rates were low, neighbours were friends, life was slower, gentler and less competitive. It was also the year that levels of happiness reportedly peaked in the US. They have been declining steadily ever since.
According to the World Health Organisation, global suicide rates have increased 60 per cent over the last 50 years. In Australia, there are more than 65,000 attempts every year. Despite being more globally connected than ever before, we are lonely; a US study found that one in four Americans report having nobody to confide in, up from one in 10 just a decade ago. These are terrifying statistics from an unhappy world, and some social commentators argue globalisation is to blame.
In Slow is Beautiful, author Cecile Andrews outlines the link between increasing levels of loneliness and a scarcity of local ties. Andrews connects the current fast-paced American economy to an increase in competitiveness, where it’s hard to find the time or opportunity to make nurturing positive social relationships. More importantly, what she’s seeing is that the localisation movement is a really effective way
of reversing this damaging trend.
The story of Ladakh
For over 500 years the people of the Ladakh region – politically part of India, but culturally more like Tibet – thrived. “Ladakh had been evolving for centuries according to its own values and its own ecosystem,” explains Helena Norberg-Hodge, co-director and producer of The Economics of Happiness, a documentary released in Australia in March 2011. She first visited the area in the early ’70s. “In the modern era there was a huge push from the West – through development – to essentially influence cultures and local economies worldwide,” she says. However, for political reasons, Ladakh remained sealed off from Westernisation until the mid-’70s, which Norberg-Hodge believes is “the main reason why they were among the happiest, healthiest people I had ever encountered.” Since the mid-1970s, the happiness and health of the Ladakhis has been in rapid decline.
“The opening [of Ladakh to foreign trade] happened with a road…and then advertising conventional schooling. The systemic effect of those changes was to destroy the local village economy which was primarily based on farming, but they also had carpenters, blacksmiths, doctors, Buddhist teachers…It wasn’t what we often imagine; there was art and music, dancing, poetry and there was also a lot of theatre in the villages,” says Norberg-Hodge.
“They are probably still among the most vibrant, vital and happy people on the planet, but there’s a huge difference and one of the clear statistics on that is that there’s now a suicide every month, in a culture that basically never knew about suicide a generation before.”
As happened in Ladakh, local communities in Australia and around the world have been profoundly affected by the adoption of a global consumer culture. While increased connectivity has its advantages, such as knowledge sharing and trade opportunities, people are increasingly isolated from their neighbours. This sense of disconnection at the local level is taking its toll, not only on our mental health, but on our planet also.