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Is Happiness Just As Important As GNP? And How Do You Measure It?

Some development experts say happiness is just as important to a country's well-being as hard economic indicators.
Some development experts say happiness is just as important to a country's well-being as hard economic indicators.
Economists and development experts are meeting at the United Nations in New York to discuss whether improving happiness is just as important as increasing gross national product (GNP) for developing countries.

The conference -- featuring 2001 Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute -- is being hosted by the Kingdom of Bhutan, which has argued for decades that hard economic indicators do not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of nation.

The United Nations General Assembly last July unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the secretary-general to look at how the study of "the pursuit of happiness and well-being" can be used to advance the UN's ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

Former UN First Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, a distinguished fellow at Canada's Center for International Governance Innovation, claims the effort is part of a decade-long process at the UN that began with the formation of the MDG in 2000.

"The [millennium] development goals tried to define development in a much broader sense than just an income-focused poverty measure," she says. "They did that in the first MDG. But then you talk about health and you talk about education -- I guess this notion of a happiness index is one more way to get at this notion that development is not just about pure economic numbers."

'Gross National Happiness'

Bhutan is playing a leading role in the bid to redefine what development means. Recognizing that economic indicators like GNP or worker productivity are imprecise measures of national well-being, Bhutan has applied the new concept of "gross national happiness" in its own budgeting since the 1970s.

Those efforts have produced a 750-page guidebook and a questionnaire that includes 33 separate indicators in categories including psychological well-being, health, education, culture, governance, community, ecology, living standards, and time use.
Bhutanese intellectual and "happiness" ambassador Karma Ura
Bhutanese intellectual and "happiness" ambassador Karma Ura

Karma Ura, a Bhutanese artist and intellectual who serves as an advisor to the king of Bhutan, is the main international ambassador for the gross national happiness idea. He sees "true forms of wealth" in good health, a vibrant environment, strong social capital, and a meaningful life.

For several years now Bhutan has been pushing aggressively to bring its philosophy to the global stage, and it has achieved successes.

Both the French and British governments have introduced well-being measures to track development

But skeptics see the move to include hard-to-measure happiness concepts as a way of covering up development failures. Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent, maintains that trying to measure happiness would make the very definition of development meaningless.

"I think that this is just a kind of fashionable way of avoiding the hard economic issues," he says. "By extending the definition of development, you actually empty it out of any content so that the more you bring in non-economic or non-materially-related issues, the more arbitrary it all becomes.

"And by bringing in happiness, you essentially provide the ruling interests with the power to literally decide what development is. It is a kind of social-engineering mission."

He points to the experience of the Soviet Union, Soviet-bloc states, and China as examples of places where "universal happiness" was purportedly achieved.

Just last month, the repressive and backward country of Turkmenistan officially declared it had entered an "era of supreme happiness of the stable state."

'Too Weakly Developed To be Useful'

Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, agrees that GNP is a poor indicator of development, but feels that happiness indices are too weakly developed to be useful.

"The problem is that if you are going to have a good thing to put in the Millennium Development Goals or to be a part of how we measure successful development, you really have to have agreement on what we are measuring," he says.

"So, with child mortality, we know what we are measuring -- we are measuring the number of kids who die between the ages of 1 and 5 in developing countries, for example, or worldwide. With happiness, there is very much less understanding about what we are talking about."

Former UN First Deputy Secretary-General Frechette notes that Bhutan did not replace hard economic indicators like GNP in its planning, but merely augmented them with "an additional dimension." She welcomes the current UN discussion:

"I think it is a positive thing in terms of bringing people in government, in particular, to get a more sophisticated understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve in society," she says. "And there are some tangible targets and then there are things that are less tangible."

Timothy Ryback, deputy secretary-general of the Academie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris, agrees that the Bhutan initiative deserves a hearing and that the discussion is well worth having"

"Happiness may be an art -- one is trying to turn it into a science," he says. "And I think, the more attention it gets, the tougher people get on this and start hammering and saying, 'What's really in this? How do you identify these indicators?' 'How do you measure them?' -- I think it will actually help us in determining how one arrives at these definitions of it and the measurability of it."