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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