Looking at Well-Being on a Worldwide Scale
On DailyHap.com we often look at happiness from a very individualistic perspective, focusing on the happiness of individuals. What happens when we broaden our scope and take a look at the happiness of society at large?
In the United States of America we generally measure our progress through economics. Why? Either we assume that economic progress is all that matters in life, or we assume that with more money people can purchase more of what they want to make themselves happy. Is this true? While it fits nicely with the American ethos of self-determination and protecting individual liberties, it is fraught with unquestioned assumptions—assumptions that might be keeping us from the most efficient policies and attitudes for actually getting what we want in life.
Why not cut to the chase? Why not measure whether or not people are getting what they want, instead of assuming that money, employment, and consumption will do the trick?
The Innovation of Bhutan: Measuring Gross National Happiness
Bhutan has been experimenting with this since the early 1970s, and is the only country to measure Gross National Happiness.
Bhutan is a little country sandwiched between China and India on the Eastern edge of the Himalayas. Nearly ¾ of its 750,000 person population are practicing Buddhists. When a former king remarked that they look at well-being to measure their country’s progress in 1970, the people took him seriously. They began to survey their population using 33 different indicators in nine categories to measure the well-being of their population, including:
1) Psychological well-being
3) Time use
5) Cultural diversity and resilience
6) Good governance
7) Community vitality
8) Ecological diversity and resilience
9) Living standard
Challenges to Gross National Happiness
Professor of psychology Ed Diener developed an alternate survey and scale to measure subjective well-being and quality of life; while others such as Adam Kramer use positive and negative words in social media updates to get a more quantitative metric.
Quantifying happiness is challenging because of its subjective nature. Yet social sciences have been quantifying subjective ideas for decades, and provide us with useful information for determining policy and making individual decisions. As Wikipedia says, “there is no major difference between asking people “how confident are you in the economy?” and “how satisfied are you with your job?”
The Subjectivity of GDP and Other Measures of Progress
How is GDP not a subjective measure? Yes, we can measure economic growth, but correlating that growth with the happiness—or other goals and aspirations of a nation’s population—is a problematic assumption.
The subjective nature of well-being is more obvious and transparent than the subjective link of wealth to happiness. Yes, there is a correlation between money and happiness up to a certain point (particularly when spent on experiences instead of possessions), but GDP does not take into account many important details such as inequality—assuming that every US citizen is better off simply because our average is up constitutes a misunderstanding of statistics.
Even if we assume that other measures of progress such as GDP are less subjective, we still must show that objective data is more important than subjective data. Yet when we talk about what we want in life, and what we most value as a society, we are inherently discussing subjective ideas.
An Integrated Approach
Recognizing the subjectivity of all the ways we measure progress and well-being of our societies does not mean we should throw them out. We should continue to strive for widespread and accurate data that take into account a variety of indicators—subjective, objective, singular, and collective.
When it comes to comparing countries, evaluating ourselves, finding our personal happiness, and determining public policies, we should take as many factors into account as are useful, understanding that everything is inextricably linked together. Well-being and a good economy often go hand in hand—but not always. Just like individuals are more likely to be happy in a happy country—but not always. It seems that a multi-faceted, integrated, and nuanced approach would best serve our understanding of societal well-being.