GDP is an increasingly limited and inadequate measure of national worth. Gross National Happiness (GNH) might not yet be credible, but it’s a worthy idea that deserves consideration as part of a desperately needed alternative.

In 2010 David Cameron announced a survey into the UK’s psychological and environmental well-being. At a cost of £2 million during a period of austerity, many condemned it as a waste of time and money. At the same time, a 250 page report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) 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 instead. 

So much for that.

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 pay themselves for failure. More worrying is our reluctance to contemplate the long term benefits of reducing our reliance on money as the main driver of wellbeing.  It is because of this dependance that, when financial markets decline (as they always do) we go into collective cold turkey 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. 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 quite yet, 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.”

44 years on, nothing has changed. We’re still measuring the same old metrics. It feels like it’s time to try something new.