One factor that is increasingly being cited as an important economic indicator is happiness. After all, what good is increased production and consumption if the result isn’t increased human satisfaction? Until fairly recently, the subject of happiness was mostly avoided by economists for lack of good ways to measure it; however, in recent years, “happiness economists” have found ways to combine subjective surveys with objective data (on lifespan, income, and education) to yield data with consistent patterns, making a national happiness index a practical reality.
In The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, former Harvard University president Derek Bok traces the history of the relationship between economic growth and happiness in America. During the past 35 years, per capita income has grown almost 60 percent, the average new home has become 50 percent larger, the number of cars has ballooned by 120 million, and the proportion of families owning personal computers has gone from zero to 80 percent. But the percentage of Americans describing themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” has remained virtually constant, having peaked in the 1950s. The economic treadmill is continually speeding up due to growth and we have to push ourselves ever harder to keep up, yet we’re no happier as a result.
Ironically, perhaps, this realization dawned first not in America, but in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. In 1972, shortly after ascending to the throne at the age of 16, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck used the phrase “Gross National Happiness” to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve his country’s Buddhist-influenced culture. Though this was a somewhat offhand remark, it was taken seriously and continues to reverberate. Soon the Centre for Bhutan Studies, under the leadership of Karma Ura, set out to develop a survey instrument to measure the Bhutanese people’s general sense of well-being.
Ura collaborated with Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock to develop Gross National Happiness (GNH) measures across nine domains: time use, living standards, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, culture, health, education, ecology.
Bhutan’s efforts to boost GNH have led to the banning of plastic bags and re-introduction of meditation into schools, as well as a “go-slow” approach toward the standard development path of big loans and costly infrastructure projects.
The country’s path-breaking effort to make growth humanly meaningful has drawn considerable attention elsewhere: Harvard Medical School has released a series of happiness studies, while British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced the UK’s intention to begin tracking well-being along with GDP. Sustainable Seattle is launching a Happiness Initiative and intends to conduct a city-wide well-being survey. And Thailand, following the military coup of 2006, instituted a happiness index and now releases monthly GNH data.
Michael Pennock now uses what he calls a “de-Bhutanized” version of GNH in his work in Victoria, British Columbia. Meanwhile, Ura and Pennock have collaborated further to develop policy assessment tools to forecast the potential implications of projects or programs for national happiness.
Britain’s New Economics Foundation publishes a “Happy Planet Index,” which “shows that it is possible for a nation to have high well-being with a low ecological footprint.” And a new documentary film called “The Economics of Happiness” argues that GNH is best served by localizing economics, politics, and culture.
No doubt, whatever index is generally settled upon to replace GDP, it will be more complicated. But simplicity isn’t always an advantage, and the additional effort required to track factors like collective psychological well-being, quality of governance, and environmental integrity would be well spent even if it succeeded only in shining a spotlight of public awareness and concern in these areas. But at this moment in history, as GDP growth becomes an unachievable goal, it is especially important that societies re-examine their aims and measures. If we aim for what is no longer possible, we will achieve only delusion and frustration. But if we aim for genuinely worthwhile goals that can be attained, then even if we have less energy at our command and fewer material goods available, we might nevertheless still increase our satisfaction in life.
Policy makers take note: Governments that choose to measure happiness and that aim to increase it in ways that don’t involve increased consumption can still show success, while those that stick to GDP growth as their primary measure of national well-being will be forced to find increasingly inventive ways to explain their failure to very unhappy voters.