Gross national happiness: It’s not just economic

Like many environmental writers, I dash off the occasional rant against excessive materialism. That’s because part of my job is to track the numbers that show how our apparently insatiable desire for more and more stuff is degrading the environment.

The numbers are depressing. By every measure – deforestation, species lost, soil degradation, rare-metal depletion, fishery collapse – human consumption is outstripping the planet’s capacity to sustain itself and support us. But while most people are at least marginally aware of these facts, consumerism, which should be held in check as a matter of human self-preservation, in most countries is on the rise.

Why?

In a phrase: the growth paradigm. That is, the belief that incessant economic growth (driven by consumption) is the only path to general prosperity and well-being.

The growth paradigm is so deeply entrenched in our increasingly global culture that almost everyone accepts the idea that “growth is good ” without question. Listen to any newscast: “ ... there was good news for the economy today, as growth in the output of ... ” Or, any politician:“ ... we must grow our economy by ... ” Or, almost any economist: “ ... the economic growth engine ... ”

But in the near future, we’ll see that growth will not make us richer if we deplete the resources upon which growth depends – if we kill the goose that lays the golden egg. If we want long-term general prosperity, we must redefine prosperity and discover another path to achieving it.

A possible path has been illuminated by the concept of gross national happiness, or GNH, used by the government of the Himalayan country Bhutan to inform its economic and social policies. Coined when Bhutan’s government opened the country to modernization in 1972, the term “gross national happiness” has been intentionally contrasted with gross domestic product, or GDP, a standard measure of economic activity.

GDP is defined as “the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country in one year.” The rate of GDP growth, or contraction, is presumed by economists (and journalists, politicians, educators and merchandisers) to measure the overall health of a country’s economy and, by extension, the well-being of its people.

However, by indiscriminately including “negative,” or nonproductive economic activity in their totals, GDP assessments fail to account for important factors that influence human and environmental health. For example, the cost of incarcerating criminals and cleaning up toxic spills is added to GDP as “growth,” but the human cost of crime and the environmental damage of spills are not subtracted. In fact, the impact of economic activity on the environment is simply not measured.

By contrast, GNH is intended to overcome these shortcomings of GDP while also redefining the purpose of an economy – a human creation – as serving the best interests of people. Underlying GNH is the assumption that a growth in well-being does not necessarily correlate with growth in “product.”

GNH economic and social policies designed to promote well-being – providing adequate and satisfactory employment for everyone who wants to work; a clean, safe environment; educational opportunity and so on – take precedence over policies designed to increase or concentrate the accumulation of capital.

How is happiness measured? Whereas GDP can be measured by tallying cash flows, GNH must be measured by surveying people’s self-assessment of their physical and psychological health, level of security and satisfaction, interpersonal relationships and so on. Bhutan has taken two major surveys (2007 and 2010), asking hundreds of questions of thousands of its citizens (www.grossnationalhappiness.com).

The survey information is correlated with social and demographic statistics such as crime rates, mental-health issues and longevity. (For example, low rates of infant mortality correlate positively with subjective expressions of well-being.) Combining this information, the Bhutanese government crafts policies that preserve the country’s traditional Buddhist culture while selectively allowing modernization that improves the general welfare.

While the U.S. cannot directly import “happiness indexes” from small, rural Bhutan, we can learn from its experience and develop our own indexes. Like the Bhutanese, we are generally healthier and happier if we have strong social ties, satisfying employment, adequate leisure time and a nurturing environment. If you think about it, simply acquiring more stuff might not be the ticket to happiness at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.