With research showing that levels of depression rise as a society gets richer, Fionnán Long considers whether we should be more concerned with happiness than GDP
Thomas Jefferson articulated what would become the core principle of western liberal capitalism: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Somewhere along the way liberty, or freedom, became linked with freedom of the markets.
An orthodox understanding of economics is based on the idea that productivity leads to prosperity. In a free market, this leads to more choices, a higher standard of living and presumably happiness. Traditionally, measures of production such as Gross National Product (GNP) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have been used to assess the success or failure of a government.
The King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began to focus on the happiness of his nation in the early 70s. His guiding philosophy is summed up by his phrase “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” The move at the time was met with scorn and condescension from most academic economists.
The idea has now begun to draw traction, however, as David Cameron has introduced a wellbeing index in the United Kingdom. The Stiglitz Commission, convened by former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, recommended introducing a measure of happiness to guide policy decisions.
The problem with Gross National Happiness (GNH) can be summed up with a simple question, how do you measure it? Measurers of happiness must rely on how participants in a survey report they feel. Data gathered is distorted by a number of factors. Do you feel happier today because it’s sunny? Do you feel uncomfortable saying that you’re unhappy? Is happiness to be measured against other people?
An individual’s self-reported happiness varies significantly from moment to moment, depending on whether they are stuck in traffic or on their lunch break. How a question is formulated and the context in which it is asked will change the answer.
Moreover, whether or not you describe yourself as happy has as much to do with how you feel as how you understand happiness. The understanding of happiness varies significantly between social and cultural groups and across time.
Our understanding of happiness also varies depending on an individual’s natural temperament. It is difficult to extract a clear picture of happiness from a single society, let alone meaningfully compare happiness on a global scale.
Data measuring happiness is vulnerable to manipulation due to the inherently subjective nature of happiness. The data gatherer can shape the survey to extract whatever result they want. Within the governmen-controlled statistics offices, there is a vested interest in shaping malleable data for election time.
Empirical evidence-based measures, such as GDP, employment, and income are more resistant to manipulation. Hard facts never lie. They are effective tools for understanding the wellbeing of citizens of a given country. They can be used for comparison between countries and within a country across time.
The way in which GNH has been used in Bhutan exposes the vulnerabilities of subjective measures of well-being. GNH has been used by Bhutan to legitimatise a dictatorship with well-documented and ongoing human rights abuses.
One sixth of the country’s population have been stripped of their citizenships and the protections that citizenship affords. The Lhotshampa, an ethnic Hindu minority in Buddhist Bhutan, have been subjected to widespread and state-backed discrimination.
The regime trumpets itself as one of the happiest countries in the world, despite the low standards of living in Bhutan. The UN Human Development Index (HDI) measures health, education and relative income. These are significantly more concrete measure of wellbeing than GNH. The HDI ranks Bhutan as 140th in the world for 2013. Bhutan came in nine places behinf Iraq, which is hardly the paragon of a happy country.
GNH has been manipulated to make the regime more palatable to western sensibilities and to convince the local populace that the status quo is just fine. Nonetheless, the concept of GNH does raise a legitimate question for western society. Is the reliance on production-based measures of success by academics, mass media, and the electorate symptomatic of an excessively materialistic society?
Capitalism, as it exists in the west, fosters a culture of consumerism. Carefully crafted marketing campaigns play on our insecurities and offer the product that will fix us. Identity and self-esteem are defined and reassured through the consumption of unnecessary products. Our sense of self-worth is only safe until the next marketing campaign begins and the cycle repeats itself. The choices that productive free markets give us fill the hole they created.
The World Happiness Report found that Ireland’s overall happiness was largely unchanged between the Celtic Tiger’s zenith and the post-recessionary period. If these statistics can be relied on, they suggest that productivity and happiness are not linked in Ireland. The truism that wealth does not bring happiness seems appropriate.
Nonetheless, the average reasonable person would rather return east Asian levels of growth in Ireland, and Irish political discourse reflects this desire. Michael Noonan’s throwaway quote that “the Irish economy could take off like a rocket” comes to mind.
Whether or not we are misguided in our reliance on GDP does not matter, that is a value judgement for individuals to make. The economics of happiness are unclear and ripe for manipulation to satisfy ideological or political goals.
GNH should be treated as a statistical curiosity and should be evaluated with more concrete metrics in mind. The happiest person who ever lived may have lived in a mud hut, but who wants to live in a mud hut?