The Second Annual Conference on Gross National Happiness The Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness
Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing
St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada
June 20 to June 24, 2005
  The Independent on Sunday - UK — Ed Halliwell
The Smileometer — forget measuring a country's success by its GDP — there's a much better system that takes happiness into account, as Ed Halliwell explains

The remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan seems an unlikely birthplace for a radical economic philosophy. Boasting less than a million inhabitants, its rarefied air is inhaled by only 6000 visitors a year, and, until the late 1990s its monarch still wielded ultimate political power (King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has now ceded limited authority to his advisors and government). Nevertheless, it was King Jigme who first coined the term ‘Gross National Happiness’, declaring in 1972 that acquisition of contentment rather than capital would be the official economic driver of his reign. They were no empty words - the Bhutanese prime minister annually reports to Parliament on ‘the four pillars of happiness’ – social and economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, environmental conservation and establishment of good governance.

And now, more than 30 years on, western economists, psychologists, business gurus and governments are beginning to give serious thought to the Bhutanese model. Ron Colman, executive director of GPI Atlantic, a Canadian consultancy, has just hosted the second international conference on Gross National Happiness, which took place in Nova Scotia in June. The conference attracted academics, politicians and corporate luminaries from across the globe, and its success has convinced Colman that the days of measuring achievements in purely economic terms are numbered. “People are increasingly aware of the limitations of growth-based measures of progress,” he says. “We’ve been told that when Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is growing at a rapid rate, then we are better off, but that’s very misleading. The more trees you cut down, the more the economy will grow. The more fish stocks you deplete, the more the economy will grow. Exxon Valdez contributed more to the GDP of Alaska by spilling its oil than if it had delivered it safely to port. Meanwhile, if you hire a stranger to look after your child, it counts towards GDP, but look after your own child and it counts for nothing. Or take crime – the more we have, the more the economy will grow, because we’re spending on prisons, police, and court cases. It’s absurd - we’re counting things as growth which are not really good for us.”

Instead, indexes of Gross National Happiness attempt to measure indicators that contribute to our well-being. “We count things like unpaid work and free time, reductions in crime and greenhouse gases, and improvements in health,” explains Colman. “It’s a broader, more comprehensive measurement.”

In the UK, Gross National Happiness has been championed by the New Economics Foundation, a progressive think tank. Nic Marks, the Foundation’s head of Well-Being Research explains: “Our belief is that we should measure what matters. We spend £250 million a year collecting economic data, so spending a couple of million collecting psychological well-being data would not seem a bad use of money, especially as there are now increasingly robust methodologies for assessing quality of life.” These include measures of general ‘life satisfaction’ (Britain recently came 37th out of 90 countries in an international survey of life satisfaction - Denmark, Malta and Switzerland came top, Moldova and Zimbabwe were at the bottom), as well as assessments of our sense of security, autonomy, relatedness and competence, all of which have been shown to correlate with happiness. Economic measures are still included, but contrary to popular belief, greater wealth only make a difference to our happiness if we are among the poorest 20 per cent of the population. “The cultural myth that money is going to make you happy needs challenging,” insists Marks. “For most people in a developed country like Britain, the data doesn’t support it.”

Lord Richard Layard, Professor at the London School of Economics, and author of Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, agrees: “The idea that GDP tells you something about how well-off people are is appalling. The competition between countries to achieve greater GDP growth is quite undignified, and is what leads to the pressure and anxiety that our children experience at school and which has an increasingly bad effect on their mental states. Instead, the competition should be about happiness.”

Perhaps sniffing a credible means of capturing the feel-good factor, the UK government has begun to give serious consideration to happiness data. Lord Layard says he has been involved in three seminars on the subject hosted by the Treasury, while researchers at the No 10 Strategy Unit have written papers on ‘life satisfaction’, and the Department For Environment, Food And Rural Affairs has promised to produce a feasibility study on how to measure well-being by the end of 2006. Nic Marks is gratified, but not surprised: “We know that the most important thing to most people is a long and happy life, and these indexes tap into that. If politicians weren’t interested, it would be very bizarre.”

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