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Traditionally when talking about or measuring the overall health and prosperity of a nation, policy makers and academicians turn to economic measures. While there are many different economic measures that are used, one of the most common is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is an estimate of the total value of all materials, foodstuffs, goods, and services that are produced by a country in a particular year. This is standardized as per capita GDP which allows for an easy comparison of countries with different overall populations.

Indicators such as GDP determine national policies. The almost universal use of GDP-based indicators as a measure of progress have justified policies which focus on rapid material progress at the expense of environmental preservation, cultural preservation, spiritual enrichment, and community cohesion. In recent years an increasing number of people are questioning why policy-makers should place so much emphasis on economic indicators while ignoring factors which may be more important to the people.

Devilstower, in a diary in the Daily Kos, writes:

The question becomes, by measuring GDP are we measuring anything of worth? Are we measuring something that accurately reflects the economy? A growing number of economists think we need to change. Instead of measuring consumption as the mark of a strong economy, why not measure the quantity and quality of employment?

In the 1970s Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wanchuck indicated that he cared more about Gross National Happiness (GNH) than Gross National Product. Economic growth, he argued, does not bring contentment. Subsequently, the Bhutan government reported:

GDP is heavily biased towards increased production and consumption, regardless of the necessity or desirability of such outputs, at the expense of other more holistic criterion. It is biased against conservation since it does not register conservation or stocks.

With regard to happiness, the Bhutan government reports:

Happiness is a subjectively felt public good. Happiness is a public good, as all human beings value it. Hence, the government of Bhutan takes the view that it cannot be left exclusively to private individual devices and strivings. If a government’s policy framework, and thus a nation’s macro-conditions, is adverse to happiness, happiness will fail as a collective goal. Any government concerned with happiness must create conducive conditions for happiness in which individual strivings can succeed.  

In response, Bhutan has designed Gross National Happiness (GNH) with is based on four pillars:

Sustainable & equitable socio-economic development

Pristine environment

Preservation & promotion of Bhutan’s culture

Good governance

Many in the Western World have dismissed GNH as simply an expression of nostalgia which is irrelevant in a modern, globalized world.

To measure GNH, Bhutan takes into account the nine dimensions of happiness:

  1.   Psychological Well-being
  1.   Time Use
  1.   Community Vitality
  1.   Culture
  1.   Health
  1.   Education
  1.   Environmental Diversity
  1.   Living Standard
  1.   Governance

With regard to the Time dimension of happiness:

Measurement of time, devoted unpaid work activities like care of children and sick members of household, and maintenance of household, can provide a proxy measure of contribution made by unpaid activities to welfare though the value of such activities are completely underestimated in national accounts. In the GNH index, time use component was divided into benchmark indicators of sleeping hours and of total working hours.

With regard to the Health dimension of happiness:  

Health status indicators show information on self-rated health, disabilities, body mass index, number of healthy days per month. Health indicators also cover the prevalence of knowledge about HIV transmission and  breast feeding practices. Lastly, barrier to health services are assessed in terms of walking distance to the nearest health facility, which includes both western and indigenous systems.

In applying GNH in government, each economic program in Bhutan takes into account the government's desire to protect the country's environment and cultural traditions. For example, the government, in its cautious expansion of the tourist sector, encourages visits by upscale, environmentally conscientious tourists. It does not wish to replicate the kind of environmental degradation caused by trekkers in Nepal.

GNH encourages individuals to see all things as interdependent with all other things. In order to achieve collective happiness, the principle of interdependence needs to be taken on by everyone.  Members of a GNH society would cultivate a third eye, which can elevate our vision beyond individual self-interest to address the happiness of all, as a collective goal.  The third eye metaphorically represents our potential to see all things as interdependent across time and space. Equity is central to GNH. The perception of happiness that doesn’t take into account the needs of others happiness is irresponsible and egocentric, and the pursuit of such happiness is likely to be unethical. Happiness blossoms through enhanced relationships, arising unbidden when relationships improve. In this sense, the whole of development is a progress in relationships, not of individuals.    

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 09:38 AM PST.

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