The New Wealth of Nations
Happiness is no laughing matter in Bhutan. In 1972, the king of the
tiny Himalayan nation declared that his country's development should
be measured not by purely economic indicators such as gross national
product (GNP), but by gross national happiness (GNH).
Much has changed in Bhutan over the past three decades, thanks in
part to the encroachment of Western culture through television and,
more recently, the Internet. But the nation maintains its
unconventional yardstick of success. The prime minister frames his
annual report to the National Assembly in terms of progress toward
the "four pillars" of GNH: "the promotion of
equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation
and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural
environment, and establishment of good governance."
Bhutan, say an increasing number of psychologists and economists,
may have a point. Economic measures such as GNP and the more widely
used GDP (gross domestic product) after all, have many "blind
spots." They fail to take into account factors such as
volunteer work, the value of vacation and leisure time or the loss
of natural resources due to environmental degradation. Last
February, more than 300 academics, journalists and students
enthusiastic about GNH gathered in Bhutan's capital of Thimphu to
spread their message. As the title of one paper put it, it was
"A Good Time for Gross National Happiness."
Ruut Veenhoven, a psychologist at Erasmus University in the
Netherlands who attended the conference in Thimphu, has dedicated
much of his career to studying measures of life satisfaction and
believes that eventually such indicators will replace GNP. By
combining surveys of life satisfaction with life-expectancy rates,
Veenhoven has devised what he terms "Happy Life Years"
(HLY) to measure levels of well-being across countries. In Canada,
for example, where the life expectancy is 78.6 and the average level
of life satisfaction is 7.63 on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high),
the average HLY would be 60 (78.6 × 0.763).
Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, also takes happiness quite seriously. With
positive-psychology pioneer Martin Seligman, Diener published an
article in the July 2004 issue of Psychological Sciences in the
Public Interest arguing that "well-being should become
a primary focus of policymakers." The paper concludes that more
accurate measurements of national progress would include three
approaches: economic indicators such as GDP, social indicators such
as education and healthcare, and more subjective measurements that
reflect levels of life satisfaction. As they point out, GDP per
capita has tripled in the United States since World War II, yet life
satisfaction rates have remained static.
Diener believes that "experience-sampling" is necessary
along with surveys to get a clearer picture of levels of well-being.
In such samples, individuals record their feelings about work,
family and other important aspects of life periodically throughout
the day for an extended period of time. The authors admit that
making such research part of national policy would be expensive, but
say that the costs would pale in comparison to the money spent
measuring economic indicators. Plus, citing studies showing that
happy employees are generally healthier and more productive than
employees with lower levels of well-being, they argue that higher
levels of well-being could be a boon to the economy.
Economists working to measure GDP need not worry about job security
just yet. "A huge shift in the way policymakers think"
would be required, Diener concedes, for new measures of development
to be implemented, and Veenhoven notes that data on life
satisfaction simply are not available for many countries, including Bhutan.
Fittingly, though, Diener and Veenhoven remain optimistic about the
future of their field. Although Diener does not think that
well-being will, or should, replace GNP entirely as the primary
indicator of progress, he can envision a day when well-being
statistics flit across television screens next to stock-market
updates. What's needed, both say, is a good set of numbers backed up
by research. After all, says Diener, "if you want people to pay
attention to something, measure it."—Amos Esty