Gross National Happiness, Anyone?

Posted on February 7, 2014

As a measure of national worth, GDP is becoming increasingly inadequate. Gross National Happiness might not yet be a credible alternative, but it’s a worthy idea.

In 2010 David Cameron announced the start of a survey into the UK’s psychological and environmental well-being. At a cost of £2 million at a time of increasing austerity, many condemned it as a waste of time and money. A 250 page report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) released at the same time concluded that money is the most important indicator of happiness and recommended that the government would be better off focusing its efforts on boosting Britain’s GDP.

How have we become so obsessed by GDP when it offers so little in terms of meaningful measurement? £2 million is negligible as a central government expense and less than some of the bonuses that bankers and industry leaders continue to pay themselves for failure. More worrying is the inability of these critics to understand the long term benefits of reducing our reliance on money for our sense of wellbeing.  It is because of this dependance that, when financial markets decline (as they always do) we go into collective cold turkey, our sense of well-being decreases and our stress levels rise.  Everybody agrees that this is a miserable state of affairs, so why not invest a little time and money in looking for other ways in which our sense of wellbeing can be nurtured and maintained?

Consider the Kingdom of Bhutan, one of the poorest nations in the world by traditional financial measures.  Are the people of Bhutan unhappy? Apparently not.

In a 2007 study by Adrian White at Leicester University called “A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?”, Bhutan was ranked the eighth happiest country in the world. 40 years ago the then King, HRH Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the phrase ‘Gross National Happiness’. It was his way of trying to capture the value of his country’s devout Buddhism within a model that took into account material and spiritual development rather than just financial factors. Gross National Happiness (GNH) has since been developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies into a statement of national health and well-being that is being studied by enlightened think tanks all over the world, including the United Nations, as a potential alternative measurement of national output.

Bhutan’s GNH model and others, such as the Social Progress Index, are not perfect but they are decent examples of alternative ways of thinking that should be investigated in more detail. They may not be robust enough to replace GDP, but could be used in combination with it to provide a more meaningful measurement of our national state.

It’s worth revisiting the words of Robert Kennedy in 1968:

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Kennedy was no philanthropist, and much of this was electoral rhetoric but, 44 years on, nothing has changed. We’re still measuring the same old metrics. It’s time to try something new.

(Featured image courtesy of Eric Castro: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecastro/ via Creative Commons Licence)

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