GDP is So 20th Century – Gross National Happiness is In

Gross national happiness is catching on around the world. Countries are looking beyond gross domestic product to determine the wellbeing of their citizens.

Bhutanese Kids with Fields and City in BackgroundLast January I came across the gross national happiness concept. The idea of measuring a country’s prosperity by something other than money is compelling and led me to research and write two posts. One covers gross national happiness in Bhutan, its country of origin. The other looks at gross national happiness in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

Recently, after spotting a United Nations press release announcing the publication of World Happiness Report 2103, I decided to read the report and find out what else was going on in the area of gross national happiness.

What is Gross National Happiness?

The gross national happiness model originated in Bhutan in 1972. It is a method for assessing a country’s wellbeing and provides information for government policy making. In general, gross national happiness measures 9 areas: psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, health, education, ecological diversity and resilience, living standard, and good governance.

World Happiness Report 2013

World Happiness Report 2013 was published in preparation for the United Nations 68th General Assembly which opened on September 17, 2013. The report is intended to provide information and influence sustainable development policies.1, 2

World Happiness Report 2013 - United NationsThe 156-page report slices and dices data collected from 130 countries. It presents information on happiness levels, trends, and reasons for changes from the previous report. Data tables compare six variables: GDP per capita, social support, years of healthy life expectancy, perceptions of corruption, the prevalence of generosity, and freedom to make life choices.

The media reported on country rankings and mostly skipped over important findings. For instance, mental illness, which affects 10% of the world’s population, is perhaps the most important cause of unhappiness but is largely ignored by policy makers. Or that many government programs focus on care versus prevention which could help people be healthier, happy, and productive members of society.

To learn more, read World Happiness Report 2013. It is long but fascinating.

Gross National Happiness around the World

Following are three examples of gross national happiness related initiatives occurring in the U.S. and around the world. Check out the resources section below for other examples, organizations, and more information.

Maryland

Maryland WetlandsMaryland hosted a summit for state leaders in June 2013.3, 4 During the conference, Governor O’Malley shared how Maryland is using the genuine progress indicator (GPI) model to measure the value of natural resources and services such as family care, volunteerism, and public investments in education, health, scientific research, and infrastructure

Germany

In 2013, a commission of German members of parliament and scientists wrapped up a 2-year project which determined the gross domestic product is an insufficient measure of a country’s prosperity. The panel came up with ten indicators including income distribution, education levels, health care, and environmental degradation, that will be used to measure the well-being of the German people on an annual basis.5, 6

The Global Wellbeing and GNH Lab

Kindergarten Kids with GlobeAn international initiative, the Global Wellbeing & Gross National Happiness Lab, was launched in Brazil in April 2013. The Lab’s intent is to build on Bhutan’s gross national happiness model and develop alternative metrics that measure not only financial but also social and ecological wellbeing. 7, 8, 9

Beyond Gross National Product

The modern market economy probably contributed to enabling a large portion of the population to achieve improved nutrition, health, education, and material comforts. However, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. We are using up natural resources at an unsustainable clip and damaging our planet, possibly beyond repair.

Rolled Bills and Piles of CoinsGross domestic product (GDP) measures the monetary value of finished goods and services, in other words, outputs not outcomes. For instance, GDP includes the value of building roads to oil fields, oil drilling equipment, barrels of oil, transporting oil, and services provided by people in the oil industry. It also includes equipment, supplies, and services for cleaning up oil spills while ignoring the value of people’s lost livelihoods and the cost of illnesses and environmental degradation.

We need a new way of measuring prosperity that includes not only economic factors but also the wellbeing of people and the planet. The gross national happiness model is a good start.

In the video below, MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Otto Scharmer describes why we need to move beyond gross domestic product and address global issues like our current footprint of 1.5 planets 10 and that 2.5 billion people live below the poverty line 11. It’s worth 5 minutes of your time.

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References

  1. United Nations Development Solutions Network – World Happiness Report 2013
  2. United Nations News Centre – General Assembly opens its 68th session with long-term development a prime goal
  3. Maryland Department of Natural Resources – Governor O’Malley Hosts GPI Summit
  4. Demos – Governor O’Malley Leads in the Fast-Rising Movement Around Measurement Issues
  5. Deutsche Welle – Gauging the happiness of Germans, by Martin Koch, January 29, 2013
  6. Deutsche Welle – Germany seeks formula for happiness, by Richard A. Fuchs, September 6, 2013
  7. MIT Sloan – Innovating Beyond GDP, by Otto Scharmer, April 3, 2013
  8. Presencing Institute – Global Wellbeing and GNH Lab
  9. The Bhutanese – Global Wellbeing And GNH Lab – Bhutan Learning Journey
  10. Global Footprint Network – World Footprint
  11. The World Bank – Poverty

Resources

Gross National Happiness — Around the World and in the USA

Yellow Happy Smiley FaceThe concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) began in Bhutan. This post looks at GNH around the world and in the United States.

During a U.N. speech, Prime Minister Jigmy Thinley of Bhutan said, “I believe an economy is not an economy if, at the very least, it does not cause economy. It ought to promote prudent use and management of scarce resources to make life stable and secure”.

Gross National Happiness Around the World

A series of international conferences on GNH helped spread the word around the globe in the 21st century and led to action by the United Nations.

February 2004 – the 1st International Conference on GNH Operationalizing Gross National Happiness was held in Thimphu, Bhutan.

June 2005 – the 2nd International Conference on GNH took place in Nova Scotia, Canada with the theme Rethinking Development: Local Pathways to Global Well-being.

November, 2007 – Bangkok, Thailand hosted the 3rd International Conference on GNH Towards Global Transformation: World Views Make a Difference.

November 2008 – the 4th International Conference on GNH returned to Thimphu, Bhutan and was entitled Practicing and Measurements on GNH.

November 2009 – Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, hosted the 5th International Conference on GNH Gross National Happiness in Practice.

August 2011 – U.N. Resolution 65/309 Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development was adopted during the 65th session of the United Nations. This empowered the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene a high-level meeting on wellbeing and happiness.

World Happiness Report 2012 Cover - Earth InstituteApril 2012 – the Royal Government of Bhutan hosted a 3-day conference entitled Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In preparation, the Earth Institute of Columbia University published the first ever World Happiness Report comprised of information and data from across the globe.

June 2012 – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20 took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio+20 was a 20-year follow up to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development / Earth Summit. During the conference nations agreed to explore alternatives to GDP as a measure of wealth that take environmental and social factors into account in an effort to assess and pay for ‘environmental services’ provided by nature, such as carbon sequestration and habitat protection.

March 20th, 2013 – will mark the first world-wide recognition of “International Happiness Day” which resulted from a United Nations resolution passed with consensus in the 193-member assembly.

Gross National Happiness in the United States

Spring 2009 – 6 Vermonters who had attended the 4th International Conference on GNH in 2008, founded the Gross National Happiness USA nonprofit organization to promote awareness of GNH, gather information, and connect people interested in the movement.

June 2010 – the first U.S. based conference on Gross National Happiness GNH 2010: Changing What We Measure from Wealth to Well-Being was hosted by Gross National Happiness USA in Burlington, VT.

November 2011 – an ad hoc panel facilitated by the National Academy of Sciences began an 18-month project entitled Measuring Subjective Well-Being in a Policy Relevant Framework whose purpose is to review current research and evaluate methods for measuring subjective wellbeing (SWB) in population surveys. The project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Aging, and the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council.

April 13, 2012 – the first “Pursuit of Happiness Day” was celebrated in the U.S. as part of Sustainable Happiness Week which culminated in Earth Day on April 20th.

May 2012Vermont enacted legislation to compile a new measure of the state’s “economic, environmental, and societal well-being”.

Author's Soap BoxAuthor’s Soap Box

Historically, the United States has focused on business and financial indicators to determine how successful we are as country and measure the health our economy. Happiness and wellbeing of the populace has been downplayed.

In today’s challenging economic times, we are bombarded with the message that economic growth is the goal and will supposedly fix everything. On a planet with an expanding population, a growing environmental crisis, and diminishing resources, discussions about growing our economy at the expense of the planet and it’s people don’t make sense to me. Business as usual will not get the job done.

We need a new economic model that balances using and consuming with preserving, restoring and sharing. The gross national happiness concept represents a valid alternative. At a minimum it is a useful tool for developing a new economic model, building awareness of public perception, and informing government policy.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

— Aristotle

Resources:

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