February 27, 2020

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Assessing a Healthy Economy with Gross National Happiness

What's the economy for? A movement to measure real levels of satisfaction beyond GNP grows in cities, regions and countries.


By Ron Schultz

Part of the Creating Good Work series

In building a healthy economy, what we measure and evaluate is crucial to demonstrating aspiration, progress and success. Traditional economic indicators just don’t tell the whole picture.

The state of Vermont has adopted a growing trend toward assessing its population’s well-being. The Vermont well-being survey clearly states:

“The way forward toward a new economy of well-being: measure what matters. What you measure is what you get. So, we better measure what we want to get.”

What Vermont and other regions around the world are now measuring falls under the larger title of Gross National Happiness – the health and well-being of its citizens. Now, this is not a slightly veiled Occupy-like reaction to materialists who focus solely on Gross National Product to determineVermont our economic temperature. It’s a means of truly tapping into the pulse of a nation, its values and its real satisfaction.

Rising Demand for Well-being Indicators

Those seeming intangibles translate directly and tangibly, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report 2013, into such things as longer life expectations, higher earnings potentials and higher productivity levels.

Jeffrey Sachs, co-editor and director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, was quoted in an article in the Digital Journal and made the point:

“There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their well-being. The World Happiness Report 2013 offers rich evidence that the systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us a lot about ways to improve the world's well-being and sustainable development.”

In addition, according to the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being,

“Measures of subjective well-being provide an alternative yardstick of progress that is firmly grounded in people’s experiences…. In particular, being grounded in peoples’ experiences and judgments on multiple aspects of their life, measures of subjective well-being are uniquely placed to provide information on the net impact of changes in social and economic conditions on the perceived well-being of respondents, taking into account the impact of differences in tastes and preferences among individuals.”

More US Cities Cultivating Well-Being

We are now seeing more and more municipalities cultivating indicators of well-being to assess their greater social and economic health. Many of these same cities, like Seattle, WA, Santa Monica, CA and Houston, TX, are also signatories to the Charter for Compassion. By signing this document, they pledge to make their municipality a city of compassion. Compassion, health and well-being are distinct indicators of our satisfaction and happiness.

Changing the Conversation on Happiness

In taking these steps toward greater health and well-being, cities, states and countries are not just falling in line with the latest trend. They are recognizing the conversation has to change. The satisfaction, well-being and compassion of those living within any defined border are not just something to give lip-service to or to become the butt of a condescending joke. They must be seriously addressed, acted upon and implemented for the sake of the greater good of the region.

A healthy economy is one where the measure of its vibrancy is not only Gross-National-Happinesscharacterized by a dollar sign.

Four Pillars of Gross National Happiness

The history of Gross National Happiness began in the country of Bhutan in 1972, where the term was first coined by Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He did this as a way of shifting the economy of his nation from the more conventional measures to one he felt better suited the spiritual nature of his country.

In defining GNH, four pillars were established.

  • The promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development
  • The preservation and promotion of cultural values
  • The conservation of the natural environment, and
  • The establishment of good governance.

Nine Domains of Gross National Happiness — Plus One

These four pillars were then translated into nine domains. In Vermont, a tenth was added. As with any index, by assessing individuals across each of the prescribed domains a more complete picture of their happiness and well-being, as well as that of the overall region, emerges. The domains according to the Vermont survey are:

1) Psychological well-being: The degree of satisfaction and optimism within an individual’s life, analyzing self-esteem, sense of competence, stress, spiritual activities, and the prevalence of positive and negative emotions.

2) Health: How effective are health policies? This looked at such things as self-rated healthiness, disabilities, patterns of risk behavior, exercise, sleep and nutrition.

3) Use of Time: This element is significant in assessing the quality of life. How much time is spent on recreation and socializing with family and friends? Finding a balance in how we manage time included such things as work hours, time spent in traffic jams, and improving one’s education?

4) Community Vitality: How engaged is the individual with others? What are their relationships to others and their community? Indicators are personal confidence, a sense of belonging and worth, the depth of affection they feel, the security of their home and community, and how that translated into more generous efforts like volunteering and giving.

5) Education: This domain measures the individual’s actual participation in formal and informal education, the development of skills and associated capabilities, involvement in children’s education, values education, as well as environmental education pursuits.

6) Culture: The focus here is on evaluating local traditions, festivals, core values, participation in cultural events, opportunities to develop artistic skills, and if the individual has experienced any discrimination due to religion, race or gender.

7) Environment: This domain is about the individual’s relationship to the physical world in which they live. It takes into account the perception of the quality of the water, air, soil, forest cover, and the biodiversity of the area.

8) Governance: What is the view of government, the media, the judiciary, the electoral system, and the police? This is measured in terms of responsibility, honesty and transparency. It also looks at an individual’s involvement in community decision making and political processes.

9) Standard of Living: A traditional economic measure of individual and family income, financial security, the level of debt, employment security and the quality of housing in which the individual and their family lives.

10) Working Life: (Experimental Domain added by Vermont in the 2012 Happiness Initiative GNH survey) This domain evaluates the connection between work and identity, a key component of well-being. How does the individual feel about time spent at work?

Gauging Real Satisfaction

In building a healthy economy, we’re not interested in simply building and selling more. We have to be able to gauge the real level of satisfaction, engagement GNH-communityand compassion we have toward each other. These are what truly fill this life with value and worth.

Happiness is not based on material possessions or the wealth generated by local businesses. It’s our connection to ourselves and others. Real satisfaction and meaning emerge when we recognize our interdependence and what that means in terms of how we treat one another and want to be treated.

Creating good work and building a healthy economy are not just things we dream about. They are what we must do to realize the happiness available to any of us willing to work for it.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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