Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

The news that retailers have had a poor Christmas and that we're about to slide into recession has been relayed in sombre voices by newscasters and gloomy economics pundits. Perhaps they could cheer themselves up if they had a word with the king of Bhutan, who reckons that gross national happiness is more important than gross national product because "happiness takes precedence over economic prosperity in our national development process".

At a United Nations Development Programme meeting in Korea, in 1998, Bhutan's foreign minister, Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, acknowledged that "happiness has usually been considered a utopian issue". But since an individual's quest for happiness is the most precious endeavour of all, he added, society's ideal of governance should promote that ambition.

Huh, we should be so lucky! In the UK we are lumbered with a government that judges our prosperity on how much we make and buy. Local hospitals, post offices, schools and shops are what make our neighbourhoods healthy and happy, yet our ruling classes would rather close them and save money, which is then spent on pointless and bloodthirsty wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile glossy magazines and television screens bombard us with messages that buying things houses, cars, new boobs, clothes and stonkingly expensive Birkin bags will attract respect, happiness and love.

I'm not suggesting we give up shopping, but the relentless acquisition of possessions, houses, cars and baubles doesn't just deplete our wallets, it depletes our spirit and environment too.

Bad news for the high street means good news for the planet. Making all these consumer goods and their plastic packaging, not to mention transporting them all, uses vast amounts of oil and unleashes equally vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Not buying into consumerist fantasies is the greenest thing we can do. People sometimes say they want to be green but don't know what to do, but being green is often more about not doing things.

The best present I received this year didn't cost a penny. It resulted in zero carbon emissions and brought me more happiness than any amount of Birkin bags. For a long time I had been bearing umbrage against a close relative (I am the queen of umbrage-taking, it must be said). Instead of dealing with it face to face, this resentment festered in my heart, making me cross and embittered. So just before Christmas, seduced by festive spirit, I decided to drop my grudge and meet this relative for lunch. Within half-an-hour I'd got everything off my chest, we'd chatted and laughed and all tension had melted into thin air. A load had lifted from my shoulders and I left feeling lighter and brighter.

That was the best present I received this year. It didn't do much for the economy, Mr Brown won't be boosted as no baubles were bought, but it did a lot for two people, and made a contribution to the gross national happiness.