Thursday, 19 May 2011

Gross National Happiness

In my last post I talked about the failings of GDP.  These observations, of course, are neither ground-breaking nor new.  There are a number of initiatives under way already, each attempting to measure well-being more generally.  The science of happiness is now a recognised and burgeoning field.  And as long ago as 1972 the term Gross National Happiness was coined (by the former king of Bhutan as you might have guessed).  At first glance it would appear that GNH is the obvious alternative to GDP that we've all been waiting for.  It does indeed have the potential to be a very worthy measure, but for all its merits, it does suffer some major drawbacks itself.  And in fear of becoming known as a bit of a naysayer, I will pick them apart here.  (In my defence, this is hopefully another stepping stone on the way to an understanding of what is really important to us).  I have three points to cover and I shall do them in reverse order of importance (as I see them).  So if you are already bored with my constant whinging, you can skip ahead a bit.

The first problem with GNH is that it's a lot more tricky to define than GDP.  To a large extent it is a subjective, interview-based measure.  Fortunately, the subjective concerns regarding happiness questioning have largely been allayed by studies showing that people's responses to questions correlate well with other bodily indicators of emotion.  However, the problem remains that the methods are not transparently portable across language and cultural boundaries.  Questions can never be translated precisely, and responses from people of different cultures - such as those under more repressive regimes - may well not reflect emotions in the same way.  As such, without a globally comparable measure of GNH, governments are unlikely to take it seriously and make it a top priority when policy making.  Of course, it must be noted that the non-portability of a GNH measure across borders does not prevent it being used as a very valuable tool in gauging and comparing happiness between regions.  In itself this makes it worthwhile pursuing.

Brushing aside those fluffy problems of measurement, and assuming we could pin something concrete down, then surely maximising GNH is exactly what we should be striving for?  Drive this up the political agenda and it's happy days all round, right?  Well, as you've come to expect, not quite.  GNH brings along with it two of the major flaws with GDP.

The first is that blasted G at the front.  Gross.  Indeed it is.  Actually, I think it's kinda the wrong term anyway, but, nevertheless, in this context it serves to mean 'total'.  Total happiness.  Sounds awesome, huh?  Well, the problem is, you can increase the total by making the richest richer ... or rather the happiest happier ... and leaving the poor untouched.  That is, you could increase GNH by increasing the happiness inequality.  So a measure that obscures this is potentially dangerous.  We need to be less gross about it.

Finally, the humdinger.  Anyone remember the dot com bubble bursting or the recent credit crisis?  These were both examples of what can result by short-termism, by borrowing from tomorrow to finance today.  Eventually, it all comes tumbling down.  The same applies to GNH.  Such a measure does not account for the future and so could encourage 'unsustainable happiness'.  (I'm not sure why I put that in quotes but it seemed right).  The government could print a hundred billion pounds and give everyone a windfall payment, which would make everyone happier for a while, but it would come back to bite pretty soon, and hard.  Similarly, we could do something in the short term to improve happiness which was detrimental to the environment - and therefore to happiness - in the long term.

So to summarise, I do believe in the concept of a happiness index, but it needs to incorporate inequality rather than being a 'gross' figure.  And, fundamentally, it must take account of the happiness of future generations and not just those answering the questions today, in order that decisions made to improve well-being are sustainable.  None of us wants to experience a happiness crunch! (Although it does sound rather deliciously like a new cereal from Kellogg's - in which case I'll give it a whirl).  Finally, any happiness index must be as easy to calculate and as portable as possible.  Easy for me to say, I know.  I don't have any answers on this today, but I have every faith that lots of far cleverer people than me are working on this very issue in big shiny buildings somewhere :o/  All I can state is that until a happiness index is quoted on the news each month in the same breath as the inflation and unemployment figures, then it will do nothing to push policy.

Enough already.  Time for you to do something more fulfilling.  I will cease talking about boring stuff like measures now, and get on to the real issue of what happiness actually is, next time.

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