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When It Comes to Social Progress, the Average Human Lives in Cuba

A newly released index measures social progress across 133 countries, independent of economics.

There is no shortage of indices measuring and comparing the diverse experience of being a human in 2015. But there’s one thing that studies like the OECD Better Life Index, Gross National Happiness Index, and the Human Development Index all have in common: money. Or more specifically, the inclusion of gross domestic product (GDP) or or gross national income as a defining metric.

The idea behind the Social Progress Index, released this week by the U.K.-based Social Progress Imperative, is slightly different. Measuring 133 countries across 52 indicators, the SPI is the only data-driven index measuring social progress and human wellbeing that doesn’t take economic growth into account. In a world where global development projects increasingly fall under a model of export-led GDP growth, the SPI is out to prove that GDP is not always destiny.

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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.

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