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August 6, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Happy By Numbers

The sad problem with measuring Gross National Happiness


In 1972, Bhutan’s Druk Gyalpo—a royal title which translates to ‘Dragon King’—instituted a new national development measure. Under the King, Bhutan was dragging behind in economic and consumption-based measures like gross domestic product (GDP); measures considered an ill-fit for Bhutanese society. Instead, a metric based on well-being and happiness would guide their progress: gross national happiness (GNH).

Much like the Treaty of Waitangi informs all legislation considered in New Zealand, GNH governs all policies proposed in Bhutan. It has become a totem for the collective Bhutanese agenda, embodying a national philosophy which—while lofty—is admirable. However in instituting GNH they have shattered the last visage of the mythical Shangri-La, through a blunt exercise in quantifying and qualifying one of the purest and most enjoyable human emotions.

GNH was pounced on by academics with the vigour of a Bhutanese snow leopard; bloodlust from conference opportunities barely containable. Papers, presentations, ‘research’; was happiness the new pseudo-science which would moralise international development?

In 2005, Time magazine heralded happiness: the movement was “catching on”, much akin to the common cold. In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly conceded GDP “does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country” and adopted the ‘happiness resolution’, without a vote.

In retrospect, we have the United States Declaration of Independence to blame for the happiness fetish―“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are endorsed and enshrined as inalienable human rights in that particular document; wherefrom the UN sourced the wording for the happiness resolution.

Crucially, the Declaration and the UN’s resolution does not extend to granting or enforcing happiness. If humankind has the freedom to pursue happiness, equally we have the freedom not to pursue it and freedom from happiness if we so choose. At this level, GNH is a flawed, happiness-normative measure.

This is ignoring the fact that the state is probably the least well-equipped to influence the happiness of the people. Last year the Bhutanese Prime Minister defined happiness as an “inalienable human right that must constitute the most important function and responsibility of any government and any leader.” Sadly, he was wrong.

Governments are flawed beings, and when democracy is in play they are destined to enjoy a bare minimum of support. Our own can barely form a cohesive argument on class sizes. Asking “How are you feeling today?” in the census will do no more to guide national happiness than “Have you committed any crimes? Please list.” would help to weed out criminals.

Motivational speaker Dennis Waitley believes “happy people plan actions, they don’t plan results”. Governments plan results, and while they work on 10-point plans to get there, the essence of happiness is lost in the ensuing melee.

GNH is to happiness as hand-me-down clothes are to children: as states paternalistically wrap ill-fitting garments around children, the children find they just don’t fit clothes made for other people. Despite the best intentions, one size does not fit all, and the kids know you don’t really love them as much as you say you do.

There is no reason for states to care. You can’t tax happiness; it’s a resource resistant to redistribution—the currency of the true libertarian. The increased productivity of a happy workforce? The flow on effects? General well-being? Government intervention never felt so hollow, let alone so wanky, and states should step out.

To answer “what is happiness?” is to consummate one’s marriage to subjectivity, yet a definition is exactly what GNH aspires to ascribe. GNH assumes a common happiness, extolling a single conception which is anything but immaculate.

Take the Bhutanese origin of GNH: their measures of happiness are extremely Buddhist-centric—the state religion is Buddhism, and the faith has a two-thirds majority. Dr Ross McDonald of Auckland University defines the Buddhist incarnation of happiness as “compassion, sympathetic joy, loving kindness and equanimity”. This is one world view, of relevance in Bhutan, but every definition of happiness is different—not only between nations but, crucially, between individuals—and carries its own baggage and value-judgements. Thus, internal GNH measures are fundamentally flawed, as are comparisons on the global level.

The common measure for happiness is a 3-, 5-, or 7-point Likert scale rating happiness from “extremely happy” to “extremely unhappy”. Does a ‘7’ accurately represent the happiest you’ve ever felt? How would you represent it if, one day, you felt an even happier feeling? What number is the ideal? Is a ‘6’ twice as happy as a ‘3’?

Indeed, GNH is wider than simply measuring happiness. One representation of GNH includes factors across economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social and political dimensions. But are democracy, feelings of community, access to nature or workplace camaraderie universal recipes for happiness? No. As the saying goes, “be just, and if you can’t be just, be arbitrary”, and what constitutes a high or desirable score is largely arbitrary.

Simply, GNH is as broad as it is ambitious—as many as 72 variables hold sway. To argue that the weightings of every item are justifiable or that the ideal rating for each variable is favourable for every member of the population is folly: it is too complex to be meaningful.

McDonald claims there is an “absence of a detailed articulation of what GNH exactly means.”  There is also debate on the relevance of the computational factors of GNH: in 2002, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that “national personality traits could explain national subjective well-being”, a finding which “[appears] to be unwisely neglected, having considerable but largely unconsidered explanatory power”.

Both the wider use, and the positivist structure of GNH belies philosopher Albert Camus’ notion that “to be happy, we must not be too concerned with others”. Bhutan never aimed at using GNH to compare to other countries, or to plot development. It is an internal tool, a yardstick for measuring progress towards an ideal—an ideal which is so fluid it may as well be the ejaculate of the wet dream that is happiness-based metrics.

All the focus on reaching an ‘ideal’ begs the question: do we even want be happier? Ernest Hemingway once said “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Studies show that when happy, one’s outlook on life is less realistic, more optimistic. It’s a cold world—do we really want to be warmed by the safety blanket of delusion?

Preferable to GNH are measures which do not try to ascribe universal ideals across a multitude of categories. For example, the Human Development Index (HDI) recognises the building blocks of human survival and leave the happiness quotient to the individual by only accounting for three easily manageable qualitative variables―education, income and life expectancy. HDI tells us that to cook a successful meal we need a pot, some ingredients, and heat, but leaves the menu up to us. GNH tells us the whole recipe, sets the table and tells us to like whatever we’re made, because that’s what people like. It is in this sense which GNH is ultimately flawed.

The UN’s pursuit of happiness resolution allows us to do just that: pursue happiness. It is not a licence to shove GNH down our throats. It was Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be”. For all the well-meaning rhetoric surrounding GNH, happiness is something which is found inside us: we have the power to change it, should we so desire. It is our choice to be as happy or as unhappy as we please, and no 72-point metric can take us there.

Please, leave us to our anhedonia, and long may our malaise continue unperturbed by the metrics of wishfulness. ▲


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  1. Kirti says:

    Your article is very lucid,it helped me understand what GNH is all about.Thankyou!

  2. Enjoyed your article. Your clothes metaphor is interesting for Bhutanese have to wear the national dress by government regulation.Happiness in fashion is therefore government prescribed as is the sensible non – use of plastic. I have to say though that in terms of interaction with the few tourists who go there, such as myself, the Bhutanese are really calm, gentle and self assured even when bargaining hard. They seem to know that happiness is an inner state as the dominant spiritual path there teaches. Governments are as some Bhutanese will say and as you note are always flawed by the use of power. Such is the beast.

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