Forty years ago Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech challenging GNP as a measure of progress and growth for a nation. In his speech he stated, “Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
It is clear that tracking growth using a single statistic, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is limiting our understanding of the relative health of a society to a simple measure of economic prosperity. But measuring subjective factors like happiness, courage and joy is a difficult challenge and the possible solutions to these challenges are still being debated. However, many nations are already moving forward with attempts to more accurately measure the well-being of their citizens by looking beyond hard economic statistics to other areas that impact daily life.
Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an indicator originally developed in Bhutan in the early 1970s. His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan, believed that the existing development paradigm—GDP—did not consider the ultimate goal of every human being: HAPPINESS. GNH was based on the premise that the calculation of “wealth” should consider other aspects besides economic development: the preservation of the environment and the quality of life of the people. His Majesty believed the goal of a society should be the integration of material development with psychological, cultural and spiritual aspects.
Over the last 10 years nations have begun to expand the types of indicators they use to measure national prosperity in an effort to obtain a better understanding of the well-being of their citizens. The implementation of different surveys and indices has been spreading around the world.
- The Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations has been used since the early 1990s. Published every year, the HDI is a score that amalgamates three indicators: lifespan, educational attainment and adjusted real income. In 2010 an update was made to account for inequality standards.
- In 2003 Europe conducts the first European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) to be repeated every four years. The survey examines a range of issues, such as employment, income, education, housing, family, health, work-life balance, life satisfaction and perceived quality of society.
- The Canadian Index of Well-Being (CIW) released their first report in 2009. The CIW identifies a set of key indicators that will track Canada’s progress in eight interconnected domains of well-being: community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure & culture, living standards and time use.
- In 2011 the UK began to measure the National Well-being of its citizens with the specific goal of looking beyond GDP. It includes headline indicators in areas such as health, relationships, job satisfaction, economic security, education, environmental conditions and other measures of personal well-being using individual self-assessment.
- The Washington Post reported on an in-depth story last year about new government measurements. The article stated, “Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of ‘subjective well-being.’ If successful, these could become official statistics.” The commission’s findings are due this fall.
It will be very interesting to see what indicators will be used by our government in order to measure our national “happiness and well-being.” Despite some commonalities, the organizations and governments creating these indices are using different approaches for measuring these subjective factors. This creates difficulty in measuring across borders, a key advantage to GDP, and makes them vulnerable to challenges of accuracy and manipulation for political purposes. However, they are providing a wealth of new knowledge that could be employed to help nations address deep-rooted issues.