What About Gross National Happiness?

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When Jigme Singye Wangchuck was crowned king of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan in 1972, he declared he was more concerned with “Gross National Happiness” than with Gross Domestic Product. This probably didn’t come as a surprise to the forest-laden country’s 810,000 to 2.2 million (estimates vary greatly) residents, most of whom are poor subsistence farmers. Bhutan’s GDP is a mere $2.7 billion, but Wangchuck still maintains that economic growth does not necessarily lead to contentment, and instead focuses on the four pillars of GNH: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s culture, and good governance in the form of a democracy.

King Wangchuck’s idea that public policy should be more closely tied to wellbeing — how people feel about their lives — is catching on. “There is a growing interest in some policymaking circles in looking at these measures,” says Richard Easterlin, economics professor at the University of Southern California. “We have been misguided in dismissing what people say about how happy they are and simply assuming that if they are consuming more apples and buying more cars they are better off.” There are efforts to devise a new economic index that would measure wellbeing gauged by things like satisfaction with personal relationships, employment, and meaning and purpose in life, as well as, for example, the extent new drugs and technology improve standards of living.

The independent London-based think tank New Economics Foundation is pushing the implementation of a set of national wellbeing accounts that would tote up life satisfaction and personal development as well as issues such as trust and engagement. The accounts would also include liabilities, such as stress and depression. The logistics won’t be hard, says Hetan Shah of NEF, because much of the data is already captured by the government. In 2002, the Strategy Unit, an internal government think tank that reports to Prime Minister Tony Blair, conducted a seminar on life satisfaction and its public policy implications. Shah says Germany, Italy and France are also looking into the issue, one he predicts will become increasingly important as people continue to seek the good life.— With reporting by Helen Gibson/London