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Can’t Buy Me Love?

The problems with measuring a country’s worth by gross domestic product or gross national happiness

Former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk inspects troops in India

Bhutan usually doesn’t carry too much weight in world affairs. About 750,000 people in a mountainous patch of territory just bigger than Maryland, the aggressively isolationist nation only really opened itself to international diplomacy, trade, and visitation in 1974. Even then, Bhutan, landlocked between China, India, and Nepal, lacked significant resources and its internal reliance on agriculture and handicrafts all but relegated it to obscurity on the world stage. But Bhutan’s found one export—an idea rather than a product—that over the past few years has become a pretty big international hit. They call their grand innovation GNH, Gross National Happiness, a challenge to the world’s obsession with measuring nations’ comparative statuses through Gross Domestic Product numbers. This belief in the value of joy over the size the economy hasn’t been directly adopted by many countries, but its example has spurred a host of new metrics for nations to mark their progress in terms of wellbeing rather than just economic growth. And goals to set policies based on these new metrics may help to change the trajectory of national development strategies and values across the world.

The Bhutanese weren’t the first to raise doubts about GDP or its relative, Gross National Product, as the measure of a country’s worth. Relatively new measurements, these golden standards originated during the Great Depression in the United States as means of measuring and jumpstarting the economy, taking off during World War II as a means of maximizing wartime production and consumption. Within a generation, Robert Kennedy found it necessary to publicly question this blunt accounting instrument in a 1968 public speech, noting that it often turned a cold, number-crunching eye to actual human experience. And those doubts have only been compounded over the past year, as Italy and Nigeria boosted their GDPs by several percentage points, not through real growth, but by measuring previously uncounted parts of the economy like drugs, prostitution, and black market transactions. These uneven jiggerings make us realize just how fabricated, fungible, and ultimately questionable GDP is as a standard.

A few years after Kennedy’s GDP-bashing speech, Bhutan became the first nation to act on these concerns. In 1972, the newly crowned King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, realizing that his country looked miserable on accounting tables but was, in fact, not an abject hellhole, decided to discard GDP. With an eye towards his government’s mandate to secure its people’s happiness (enshrined in a Bhutanese legal code dating to 1729), King Wangchuck started promoting the concept of Gross National Happiness. By 2006, when King Wangchuck handed the throne over to his son, he and his advisors had turned this idea into an actual index of national wellbeing; the standard was being used to direct public policy by 2008 and the Bhutanese continued to tinker with the concept over the following years.

A few years later, the kingdom’s index caught the global eye during the 2012 United Nations Doha Climate Change Conference. All manner of stories ran on how, over the past two decades, without any focus on traditional metrics, the nation had achieved universal primary school enrollment, put more than half of its forests under environmental protection, and drastically overhauled its infrastructure—all while focusing on happiness rather than money, putting up roadside signs that said things like: “Life is a journey! Complete it!” and “Let nature be your guide.” The same year, a documentary on GNH, The Happiest Place, brought the index to a wider audience and Columbia University’s Earth Institute began highlighting GNH in its own human wellbeing studies.

Even before 2012 though, specialists and wonks had noticed that development and happiness did not always line up very well, especially in the wealthiest nations. For years we’ve had more sensitive measures than GDP, like the Human Development Index, Inclusive Wealth Index, or Social Progress Index, which measure health, literacy, and access to other services alongside a nation’s wealth. But even these measurements fail to focus on the simple, elusive quest for basic happiness. In 2005, a group at Canada’s St. Francis Xavier University gathered Bhutanese representatives to develop a similar index, and in 2009, 2011, and 2012 Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the U.N., and a coalition of nations all convened panels on the development of modified indexes.

By 2010, around the same time Bhutan’s index had reached its apex, Seattle, Washington, became one of the first polities outside of the Himalayas to officially adopt a happiness initiative, measuring which neighborhoods were happy, what made them so, and how to use that information. Over the next four years, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Nevada City, California, Somerville, Massachusetts, and the state legislatures of Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, and Vermont followed suit with their own programs to reevaluate progress and policy in terms of living experience. And by 2012, the U.N. had developed its own full-fledged Gross National Happiness Index, measuring 33 factors it found to correlate to joy—from health to free time to good governance—to reevaluate and retool international rankings of and incentives for nations and their development. These indexes are far from perfect or simple, and as of this year the UN continues to search out new metrics—from the level of birdsong in a city to the availability of glasses and washing machines—to see just what leads to human happiness and how we might leverage that knowledge.

Slogan on a wall in Thimphu's School of Traditional Arts. Photo by Mario Biondi

Yet none of this means we’ve found a perfect (or even accurate) measures of human happiness and now know how to predict and construct it. In the world of social sciences, happiness has always been elusive to define and thanks to its shifting and subjective nature, is extremely hard to pin down and quantify. Even Bhutan’s renowned index is seriously problematic, as it sidesteps issues like the country’s autocratic, monarchal system of rule and the rise of gang culture and anti-Hindu repression in the capital. Bhutan’s version of GNH also puts undue focus on the government’s priorities of Buddhist practice, handicraft skills, and conformity, and has not succeeded in making much more than half the country, even by these flawed metrics, happy. Still, even if the goalposts keep moving on happiness, as more indexes like GNH come into play and additional brainpower is devoted to the question of measuring the joy in our lives, we can slowly develop more robust and meaningful notions of what people actually need from their governments, societies, and livelihoods.

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