The intriguing term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s then king, Jigme Singve Wangchuck. He was launching a modernization campaign for the tiny Himalayan kingdom, but wanted to embrace modernity without sacrificing his country’s traditional values. Since then, the Bhutan-based think tank Centre for Bhutan Studies has developed a sophisticated method for measuring a population’s general level of well-being. The method is considered in government planning and as a sort of environmental impact statement whenever the kingdom considers a major new initiative.
It may be time to follow Bhutan’s lead and broaden the ways we define economic success.
In fact, Sergio Borger and other scientists at IBM Research – Brazil are thinking along these lines. They’re trying to come up with a way of accurately measuring the quality of life in a city.
Outside Bhutan, the gross national happiness (GNH) index hasn’t had much impact. Until now, that is. In addition to the small team of scientists at IBM, others are reconsidering our traditional methods for measuring economic success. Last year, for instance, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for government leaders to consider happiness as part of a “holistic approach to development.” On a smaller scale, the city of Seattle has turned the pursuit of a broader definition of prosperity into a grassroots community campaign. Through a Happiness Initiative, Seattle’s leaders conducted a citywide online survey of citizen satisfaction with their lives. The results of the survey have been discussed in town meetings. The Seattle City Council has promised to consult the survey data and proposals that come out of the meetings when it makes budgetary and policy decisions.
We need to rethink our definitions of economic success because the 20th century approaches alone are no longer sustainable. It’s becoming clear that prosperity should no longer be measured solely or even primarily based on how much people produce or consume. As the global human population swells beyond 7 billion, there simply won’t be enough natural resources to go around. Meanwhile, the burning of fossil fuels threatens to cause devastating global warming.
So countries and communities need to transition toward socio-economic systems that do not rely on ever-increasing numbers of people and consumption to maintain economic vitality. Instead, we should seek new definitions of economic success focused more on the quality of life–including happiness, health, peace, freedom, cooperation and opportunities for self-determination and self-expression.
This shift would represent a huge transition for society–huge challenges for political systems and human psychology. In addition, we’d face the complex operational tasks of developing standards and metrics for measuring these values, tracking the metrics and designing mechanisms for continually improving them.
But it would be well worth the effort if we can avoid environmental armageddon and endless wars over resources.