Gross National Happiness: not gross, actually a good idea

The BBC radio had a program a few weeks ago that touched on the idea of the government measuring not just Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but also Gross Domestic Happiness (GNH). One of their main commenters on this took the stance that it was a terrible idea, because:

The last thing we need is the government telling me how to feel. What if I don’t want to be happy today.

(Or words to that effect).

This is either bad analysis, a bad attempt at comedy, or both.

It has bits of a valid point shimmering around on its surface: Any fully lived life will eventually run a full range of emotions, from giggly, to grieving, to anguished, to profound. Also, trying to micro manage away negative emotions is not only a bad idea, but not one likely to work all well either – and that’s even more true if you ever have to deal with full-on mental illness, as illustrated by this cartoon:

If physical diseases were treated like mental illness

If physical diseases were treated like mental illness

But look even just a little bit deeper, and this inability to dictate our own emotions is exactly the reason why national happiness is a good measuring rod for governments. Nobody can tell us to be happy, but they can, perhaps, create conditions which promote people feeling a sense of satisfaction with one’s life, and how it is going. They can encourage situations which, on average, more often lead to feeling joyful, hopeful, and energised, and less often leave us feeling grumpy, pessimistic, and anxious.

There is a lot of research to suggest that this type of mental well-being has relatively little to do with how much money gets spent (which is all GDP measures), but a lot to do with with a genuine sense of meaning in our activities, having emotional connections with those around us, and a sense of control over our world.

A government that tracks its own success by looking at the GDP may (or may not) find a benefit in policies that uproot communities, or ones that put people out of meaningful careers. It might even see catastrophes like oil spills as good things, because spending money on expensive cleanups automatically raises your GDP. On the other hand, a government that tracks its own progress through GHP, would likely see all of these things as costly.

At the end of the day it’s a truism of big organizations that what they deliver, tends to be what they measure – managers get antsy when they see the jagged lines on their pretty little graphs heading downwards, and people see rewards and promotions coming down the pipeline when those same lines are on the up and up. I’d like to see the serious argument that what we DON’T ultimately want from our government is to lay the foundations for a happy, healthy, and contented population.

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The uber problem of letting economists set your prices.

There’s this service called Uber that’s been getting pretty popular in parts of the States, and has seen a bit controversial lately. It’s an app that connects people who want priceyish cab rides on demand, with people who drive said cabs – though not the regulated city kind – and all through the instant magic of cell phone technology. Crucially, Uber takes it upon itself to set the prices, and therein lies the rub: those prices are set by economist types, and not by marketer types. So they do things that make sense to economists, like raising the price when its algorithm detects more demand – like, say, in a snow storm. Lo, people got upset and protested when this happened, leaving the economists scratching their pointy little heads.

To an economist this is just supply and demand working like they are supposed to. If more people want cabs at once, then you put the price up, and some people will decide to travel another way (or not at all), while the people who REALLY need to get somewhere will still pony up, and the extra premium will persuade an extra few cabbies to get off their couches and dice the ice. If airlines can charge more at Christmas without people complaining, then why all the fuss about doing the exact same thing with cabs in the snow?

But marketers have to get intimate with how they actually think, not just how a computer would expect them to think. And if there is one thing that people need, it is a sense of control over their lives. We can cope with matinee shows being cheaper in the middle of the day, because it is a predictable element of our leisure lives. When we look for holiday flights, we might be annoyed that it is more expensive at Christmas, but we can plan around it. But when we are stuck in a snow storm, we find our normal options are limited, and so we get worried and frustrated. If the options that we fall back on work, then we feel good that we pulled one of. But when those options suddenly spike in price, just when we need them most, then we start to feel constrained and threatened. And then we feel angry and righteous, because what kind of depraved jerk milks anguish for profit? And those are the types of emotions that lead to angry letters, or worse.

But shh, don’t tell the economists. It’s cute watching them try to come up with different categories of goods that relate to a psychology idea they saw in a TED talk 🙂