Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Gross National Happiness (GNH) vs. Gross National Product: A Global Debate

Who would expect a tiny ( but beautiful) country, population 738,000, squeezed between India and Tibet, to lead a contemporary international debate about how fulfilling lives are in diverse countries? This important question is best answered by the prime minister of Bhutan, one Jigmi Thinley, who presides over policy. The term, “Gross National Happiness (GNH), was coined by this Buddhist nation’s fourth king, over 30 years ago, to pose a humane alternative to the materialistic GNP’s of the "more developed" Western powers.

Thinley flinches at attempts to characterize Bhutan as “the happiest place on Earth”, the more to remain focused on national policies he has established since running the little kingdom since 2008. His mission is to create a society of tiny villages into more than an utopian dream. He envisions four pillars to his GNH : sustainable economic development, conservation of the environment, preservation of culture and good governance.

Little Bhutan, you see, is experiencing the Easterlin Paradox, named after the American economist Richard Easterlin. He made headlines establishing the agreement that beyond certain thresholds, rising´incomes don’t bring more happiness. The same outcome is evident in China as well as the United States. Indeed in the U.S., economic insecurity is affecting reported levels of happiness. The General Social Survey, the oldest attempt to measure well being in America, discovered the “lowest levels we’ve ever heard. Easterlin concludes: “The picture is not encouraging.” (Time, 10/22/12, p.44) What to do?

The first step a nation must take is a survey. Bhutan’s grilling of 8,000 citizens took place in their homes where were posed deeply personal questions such as “How many people could you count on for help in case you get sick?” Or, “How often do you talk about spirituality with your children?” Or “When did you last spend time socializing with your neighbors?” Answers form their baseline GNH Index, 0.743 on a scale that goes up to 1.00.
What I quickly noticed was that contemporary secular innovations (advertising, broadcasting, pop “culture” in general) had high-jacked these human interactions for commercial purposes. High tech infantilization sucks the potential human happiness out of daily activities for commercial gain. A finely tuned common school education could easily neutralize this covert robbery.

Different cultures have responded to this massification diversely. Columbia University’s Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz noted that after the 2008 fiscal crisis calls to devise an alternative to GNP have flourished. “When Bhutan took up GNH, some people said it was because they wanted to take attention away from lack of development. I think quite the contrary.T he crisis has made us aware of how bad our metrics were even in economics, because U.S. GDP looked good, and the we realized it was all a phantasm.” Stiglitz now heads an important French commission to analyze the issues.And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development set up Your Better Life Index, a new website that allows countries to rank themselves on eleven measures of well being.

Not surprisingly, Denmark and Sweden rank highest on work life balance and the environment. Canada’s province of Alberta and the city of Edmonton have supported the Canadian Index of Well-being. Instead of Bhutan’s GNH Index survey questions, Ottawa has created an index of 64 existing statistics, including work hours and violent crime, considered proxies for various components of well being .Local is better. Maryland has devised a genuine progress indicator (GPI!).

Vermont’s social service agency translates lofty dreams into concrete terms. For example, instead of decreasing the lasting impacts of poverty, the state set a goal of reducing the reading test score gap. Monica Hunt in charge of planning and policy avoids “happiness” jabber. She wants to operationalize “happiness” to make Vermont a safer, healthier place to live. “All of these things,” she concludes, "are connected to that happiness index that started in Bhutan.” 

The more, the merrier, as the globe deploys its many thinkers to refine the human lives of the 21st century. (The New York reporter Roya Wolverson has brilliantly assembled these international details to reveal how the human race is thinking its way out of historical errors.)

Read another version of this essay at Broad Street Review.

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