Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gross National Happiness, Growth and Development Policy

“If, at the end of the plan period, our people are not happier than they were before, we should know that our plans have failed.” The King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wanchuk (Bok, 1)

King Wanchuk’s approach to development is revolutionary. Rather than measuring the progress and vitality of his nation through economic means, namely through gross national product (GNP), he gauges it through gross national happiness (GNH). He focuses on “four pillars” of development: good governance, stable and equitable socioeconomic development, environmental protection and the preservation of culture. Economic growth is “deliberately refrained from maximizing immediate growth in order to maintain a slower, steadier expansion over the long run” (Bok, 2). Similar to many aspects of social democracy, focus is on long-term investments; improving education and health care.
GNH is about removing obstacles of public nature to collective happiness through policies, programmes and associated public expenditure. Because official actions create conditions either for or against the success of society‘s striving for contentment, government decisions and public expenditure…are vitally important (Ura 2009, 29).
Bhutan has had many successes as a result of these policies: their per capita income is now higher than that of India, average life expectancy has risen from 43 in 1982 to 66 years today, infant mortality has fallen from 163 deaths per 100,000 to 40, and literacy has increased from 10% in 1982 to 66% presently.
I want to focus on Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness (2010) and its relevance to development policy in both developed and developing nations. Bok focuses his analysis and recommendations on the United States and as such, many are specific to the Unites States. He does not explore how happiness research might be helpful in the formation of policy in developing countries, specifically those in the bottom billion who are racked by numerous obstacles to institutional stability. Nevertheless, the most profound impact of happiness research may be its challenge to traditional economic notions of growth, which are relevant for both developing and developed nations. Happiness research can help reprioritize policies, focusing less on economic growth solely for growths sake but as a means to improve people’s wellbeing through long-term social investments designed to address particular ailments such as education, health care and institutional difficulties. 

The single most important factor in measuring national vitality and progress is still seen as GNP. An increase in per capita income is assumed to bring corresponding increases in levels of happiness and wellbeing. However, Bok says, “average levels of happiness in the U.S. have risen very little if at all over the past 50 years despite substantial growth in per capita incomes” (Bok, 5). Interestingly, happiness research has shown that as a country achieves a per capita income of $10,000 - $15,000 per year, further increases have little to no effect on overall levels of wellbeing. We are forced to ask, “if happiness has changed so little over decades of increasing prosperity, does it make much sense for public officials to attach such importance to economic growth as a measure of the nation’s progress” (Bok, 7)? What is the point of working so hard to increase GNP, or taking the risk of environmental disasters, in order to double and redouble capital when it is proven not to make a substantial difference in wellbeing? Many great thinkers have pointed to the de-emphasis of economic growth such as John Stuart Mill who described “the stationary state,” Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and John Maynard Keynes who said,
The time is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the heart will be occupied…by the real problems – the problems of life and human relations, of creation and behavior and religion. [Then] man will be faced with his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely, and agreeable, and well” (Bok, 66).
The emphasis on growth for growth’s sake is unfortunately a hegemonic discourse; growth has become an end in itself. There are more worthwhile pursuits, other than increasing GNP, which have been proven to increase wellbeing. Bok says, “a few afflictions stand out because they cause sever and prolonged distress, affect large numbers of people, and seem at least somewhat amenable to enlightened public policy” (124). He points out six factors leading to happiness that may be a better reference point for assessing national progress. They are marriage, social relationships, employment, perceived health, religion and the quality of government. I will not explore these factors in detail, but collectively they highlight that is it is better to concentrate and analyze individual policies tailored to specific problems rather than broad generalizations on notions of justice, equity or wellbeing that may have unforeseeable negative effects.

Policy investments need to focus on persistent sources of unhappiness. Inadequacies and failings exist in health care and education policy as well as institutions such as campaign finance and the influence of lobbyists and special interests. In the arena of health care minimizing under-treatment should take precedent. Bok centers on treating chronic pain, sleep disorders and depression.  Reforms in these areas, he says, “could give a substantial boost to the wellbeing of many millions of people who currently live large parts of their lives in a state of misery and despair” (138). Expenses for these policies would be easily offset in the long run and many would have no ill effects on the economy to begin with. Education is also a cornerstone of Bok’s policy suggestions. Students, he says, are mainly viewed as human capital, long-term investments to enhance economic growth and competitiveness. Emphasis is put on vocationally oriented majors in higher education and basic competitive skills such as English language skills and mathematics in elementary schools. These subjects have become measurements for success in the U.S. education system. Programs like No Child Left Behind, trying to meet these higher standards, take time away from other subjects. Focus has been shifted from social studies (reduced by 36%), science (38%), art and music (10%) and physical education (9%) (Bok, 159). Education should not just train students for jobs but should cultivate a wide range of interests and pursuits that have been proven to increase satisfaction with life such as music appreciation, art, civic education, moral reasoning and physical education. Viewing students as a means to build a more competitive workforce is just another manifestation of the fixation on economic growth. In light of happiness research it should become harder for government leaders to resist policy reform in the name of fiscal expansion.
Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer have shown, “the more direct democracy, the greater the happiness” (Bok, 61). It is not surprising then that the countries with the highest ranking in overall satisfaction with life have been stable democracies for over 80 years. Correspondingly, the countries with the lowest rankings are states such as “Zimbabwe, Haiti and Angola that have been marked by instability, violence, or oppression brought about in no small part by government policies” (Bok, 54). Bok makes recommendations for institutional changes that can help governments perform better, increasing the happiness of its citizens. His suggestions are based on institutional criticisms of the Unites States, but they still offer insight into how developing countries can avoid some of the same problems. The influence of money in politics can be a significant corrupting factor and a major impediment to direct democratic participation. Poorer people are much less likely to vote and usually carry cynical attitudes of civic engagement. In the United States, campaign contributions almost always come from those people who make more than $100,000 a year. As such, representatives are more responsive to their affluent constituents. This creates a negative feedback loop, as poor people realize the low amount of influence they have, they participate even less. Bok says,
People enjoy great satisfaction when they know [or believe] that they live in a just world (97)… strengthening trust in government and avoiding excessive cynicism toward politicians have an importance that goes beyond increasing happiness. The attitudes of the public have serious consequences for the quality of democracy quite apart from their effect on levels of wellbeing (202).
His recommendations include greater use of impartial bodies, which build confidence in the fairness of the system, earmarks, pork barrel spending and special interests must all be curbed, and public finance of campaigns can limit the influence of money. While these are suggestions for the Unites States, developing countries can learn from them, creating their own policies to curb these negative influences on direct democratic participation. European social welfare programs such as old age pensions and health care have been shown to increase voting of lower income populations (nearly as much as their affluent counterparts) as they exhibit higher levels of trust in their governments. Increasing the opportunity to participate will have significant increases in people trust in government, improving wellbeing. Once again, in all the policy areas, “the chief contribution of happiness research does not lie in developing novel remedies but in pointing to neglected needs and sufferings that offer unusual opportunities to improve the wellbeing of millions” (Bok, 138).

Although countries like Costa Rica, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Mongolia have begun to use wellbeing indicators, GNP is still hegemonic in determining growth and development (Bakshi 2004). Ura (2008) says, “GNP is primarily biased towards increased production and consumption, regardless of the necessity or desirability of such outputs, at the expense of other more holistic criterion” including human, social, cultural and ecological capital. Indicators are important because they determine policy direction and investment. GNH indicators, guided by moral and ethical values, can be used to stimulate what GNP overlooks: environmental preservation, social cohesion and the stimulation of creativity. In this way conceptions of national progress may begin to shift away from growth for growths sake, and towards development that reinforces happiness and wellbeing. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) is a forerunner in this paradigm shift. Their goals include, universally high levels of wellbeing, sustainable use of environmental resources and improvement of human systems, such as a stable and productive economy, a cohesive society and good housing to name a few (Abdallah 2011). Policy makers are encouraged to reconsider existing policies, identify new principles for the design of policy, provide better evidence for their consequences and to be able to indentify the inequalities in wellbeing they are meant to alleviate (Abdallah 2011). 
These recommendations of prioritization are just as relevant to developing nations as they are for stable developed democracies. Developing nations will undoubtedly have unique problems other than those Bok describe in the United States. I recommend they emulate Singapore, bringing in talent from other countries and keeping domestic talent within the country. This will reinforce investments in both health care and education.
The justification for future economic growth seems hard make in light of sensible policies designed to alleviate suffering and which we can easily afford. Entrenched elites and vested interests will always be an obstacle to overcome. Bok anticipates, “if obstacles to such reforms exist, they are more likely to involve a lack of political will than a shortage of money” (209). Publishing annual reports on the well being of the citizenry, following Bhutan’s example, will call attention to these issues and stimulate debate and a greater public understanding of the actual sources of wellbeing. Nille Van Hellenmont has suggested a GNH-label on commercial information, publicity and advertisement. This, he says, would cut through the “existing ideology of the systematic creation of artificial needs, a multiple source of unhappiness” (672). Proven sources of wellbeing must become symbols of value, i.e. the more is possessed the happier we will be. This would replace existing symbols of happiness, which more often than not are based around money and increasing material possessions and consumption, production for production’s sake and consumption for consumption’s sake.
Happiness research has many widespread implications for how to redirect policy and how we can rethink economic life. Growth for growth’s sake is simply not sustainable in the face of rising populations, environmental decline and the increasing demand for higher standards of living. GNH may be useful to distinguish between development and growth. Development may have moral and ethical values guiding policy with a holistic approach to alleviate suffering and increase wellbeing through mechanisms such as health care, education and institutional reform. The UK, France, the EU, the UN and the OECD have all expressed interest in measuring wellbeing. Hopefully, as the information spreads, the paradigm shift will take hold and begin to shift the way we think about development and economics.


1.                    Karma Ura, Dasho. (2008). Explanation of the GNH Index. The Centre for Bhutan Studies.
2.                    Karma Ura, Dasho. (2009). A Proposal for GNH Value Education in Schools. Gross National Happiness Commission.
3.                    Bok, Derek. (2010). The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn From The New Research on WellBeing. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
4.                    Van Hellenmont, NIlle. GNH: Changing Views, a Label for Quality Information. Practice and Measurement of Gross National Happiness. 672-686.
5.                    Bakshi, Rajni. (Aug, 2004). Gross National Happiness. Post Autistic Economic Review: No. 26, Article 6.
6.                    Abdallah, Saarnah. (2011).  Measuring Our Progress: The Power of Wellbeing. The Center For Wellbeing: New Economics Foundation. London: UK.

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