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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Does Happiness Measure Up in Development?

Happiness is everywhere in development these days. France called in a team of hotshot economists to reorient its economic policy and now the Prime Minister of the UK says he wants to develop a happiness measurement for the UK. But before France, and before the UK, the idea of happiness was making a name for itself in a much smaller and out of the way place—Bhutan.

Gross National Happiness (GNH), the Bhutanese incarnation of the idea, came about after the 4th King’s glib remark about the limits of Gross National Product (GNP). GNP was the dominant measurement of development at the time, one very similar to GDP. Bhutan, the king said, cared more about GNH than GNP, because economic growth alone was not what was important. Even back in the 1970s when he made the comment, Bhutan’s king was far from the first to remark on the limitations of GNP, GDP, and the models of economic growth that accompanied them. Many before had noted that GNP and its successor GDP left out negative externalities, environmental impacts, and inequality.

The main point of GNH was that it questioned the ends of development and the conventional wisdom of the time. Should we place limits on growth? Was economic output the only measurement that concerned a developing country? What should a just society look like? In Bhutan’s case these were more about Bhutan’s development and direction. In fact Bhutan developed its own vision of development that included inequality, the environment, and cultural preservation alongside economic growth. Although designed for Bhutan, the thinking behind it was more broadly relevant which is part of the reason I think it caught on globally.

Word to the wise: Do not try to pay your hotel bill in happiness.

What GNH did, essentially, was remind us that it is not wealth itself we value, but what it brings us and our concern should be on how well we are meeting those ends. To get old school for a minute, this insight goes all the way back to Aristotle. In Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle states that “wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful for the sake of something else.” It is also an insight that has not been lost on some modern economists—Amartya Sen’s work comes to mind.

However, recently in Bhutan, as well as in France and the UK, the idea of GNH has been reduced to a metric. This is, I think, a problem for several reasons. To begin, economics and economists already have alternative metrics to deal with other elements of development we may care about. For inequality, there are measurements like the Gini coefficient, and for the environment, well, there's a lot of literature devoted to just how to value the environment and its degradation. Similarly, there are a plethora of alternative measurements for development, PQLI and HDI to name two, that try to incorporate elements of development other than economic output. So, to begin with I’m skeptical about the need for another metric.

Perhaps more fundamentally, there’s the problem of measuring happiness itself. I have to admit the very idea of measuring happiness as a basis of economic policy is preposterous to me. Much like Catherine Bennet at The Guardian and Jamie Whyte at the Wall Street Journal, I find serious problems with the idea of a standardized definition of happiness, both across individuals and cultures within a society and for those individuals and cultures across time.

In Bhutan this obsession with measurement has led to some fairly absurd consequences. The GNH survey conducted here consists of thousands of questions that take a ridiculously long time to administer. To give you an idea, the shortening of the survey is described like this on the official website: “The pilot survey questionnaire, which was found to be too lengthy, was pared down to a questionnaire that took half a day to interview.” A half a day still seems like an unreasonably long survey to me. The are other problems with the survey, which I invite you to explore.

But aside from the specific problems with a GNH survey in Bhutan or the difficulty measuring happiness in general there is something else that bothers me about this way of incorporating happiness into development. To begin, it shifts development from an open and complex discussion about what the ends of development should be and whether they have been achieved to a simple calculation. Instead of discussing just or fair development, or, to note Brad’s post, whether we care about the environment and other species as ends in themselves, and then evaluating, we merely have to see if our GNH index has gone up.

The second problem is that a GNH metric opens itself up for fundamentally undemocratic misuse. On the one hand, the metric moves discussions of the good life off the table and assumes whoever designed the metric knows what happiness is. Jamie Whyte (mentioned earlier) at the Wall Street Journal notes this is fundamentally illiberal and authoritative. But the other problem is that it opens the possibility of dismissing social problems. Much to my chagrin, my American-written sociology textbook here in Bhutan told my students that people in slums in India were poor, but happy and basically okay with their lot in life. A GNH index that “proves” this with numbers, I worry, would make it all the easier to dismiss concerns like poverty or the slashing of social programs because people are "happy" without them.


  1. Hey Jason-- y'all are doing a great job with this blog. One question-- I'm living in a Nepali community in India which has several Bhutanese refugees. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but the Bhutanese government made its Nepalis (around 40% of its population, I think?) second-class citizens, denying them their religious practices and language in schools and such at first and then chasing many of them out of their communities with the requisite rape and beating. That, at least, is what I gather from a combination of internet accounts (poor internet not allowing me to copy-paste appropriate links) and what I'm told by the Bhutanese refugees who either really wish they could go back or are amazing actors. In addition, it seems that many of the poachers working in the Tiger Reserve I research in are apparently Bhutanese, and come from across the border since they've exhausted their quarry (this is pure hearsay).

    Do any discussions of Bhutan's GNH measurements reflect the human rights/conservation failings of the nation?

  2. Hello Jayson! you have made a great job in make this blog site and the questionnaire you have posted in the site, keep up the good work.

  3. Nitin,

    I'm familiar with the issue and the short answer to your question is no.

    The issue of human rights is interesting to think about in relation to development and how we measure success. The alternative development measurements I am familiar with do not usually deal with human rights. See the Canadian Index of Wellbeing or GPI Atlantic for some others.

    But there are measurements that do:

    There is considerable debate about the subject and the freedom house measurement.

  4. Your friend Aida referred me to this post following a discussion she and I were having in December. I have always been interested in the intersection between standards of living and well-being (as in general contentment). You bring up some good points for consideration in the last two paragraphs of your post. Numbers are useful when we understand the context and what they represent. And they can be dangerous when we attribute undue meaning to them. The last two years have opened up discussion in the US on this topic in a way that I have not observed before in my lifetime. I know it seems cliche to point it out, but the financial losses experienced by many appear to have prompted some Americans to reconsider what is important to them in life and, perhaps, re-prioritize. By really understanding what a particular sum of money or material item means to us personally - what it represents for us - then we can begin to come up with, perhaps, our own gauge of contentment. Sometimes a number provides a point of comparison, an impetus for us to evaluate our own circumstances and so the purpose it serves might be different altogether from what the makers intended (or claim to intend). I'm no expert on this topic which is clearly rich and which has many sides. Just sharing some thoughts as they come to me. If you write back, I don't know if I'll be notified, so feel free to let me know if you have posted a response via my website contact page. If not, no worries, and all the best with your research!


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