David Hoppe

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:: How happy are we?

by David Hoppe

Every country, it seems, finds a way of measuring how it’s doing. In the United States, for example, we calculate what we call our “Gross National Product.” The GNP tallies the market value of all the products and services produced in one year by labor and property supplied by Americans.

You could say that GNP measures a country’s material success, which is fine as far as that goes. It’s just that, in the larger scheme of things, market value is, well, limited. As Bobby Kennedy once remarked, GNP “measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In the nation of Bhutan, up there at the top of the world in the Himalayan mountains, they claim to have a different way of measuring how they’re doing. They measure Gross National Happiness.

They’ve been doing this for around 40 years. Bhutan conducts bi-annual surveys intended to measure the country’s progress in what they call nine different “domains.” These domains include physical health, mental health, education, quality of governance, social support and community vitality, environmental quality, time balance, access to arts, culture and recreation, and material well-being.

Taken together, the domains form what the Bhutanese call a “happiness policy tool.” It’s like a constitution in that any new legislation must first be evaluated in terms of how it serves the various domains. A 24-member Gross National Happiness Commission gives a numerical score to each legislative proposal, which must get at least 69 of 92 possible points to receive a positive recommendation.

I’m sure that trying to calculate happiness, let alone basing public policy on such a notion, probably sounds crazy to many Americans. Never mind that Thomas Jefferson wrote that the “pursuit of happiness” was one of those self-evident truths that formed the basis of our Declaration of Independence.

Maybe it’s our puritanical origins, the idea that, as Jonathan Edwards so daintily put it, we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. Or perhaps it is our attraction to rugged individualism. In any event, when it comes to accounting for well-being, it seems Americans have been more comfortable with what we can measure (more or less) objectively, meaning in terms of dollars and cents.

We justify supporting the arts not in terms of what art experience can do for our personal and collective souls, but because we claim the arts will spur economic development (and we have the studies to prove it).

We fight for the preservation of wetlands, woods and lakeshore, not because these places are beautiful, but because proximity to their beauty might enhance property values (we can show you the numbers).

We try to reform our educational systems not because we wish to empower every child with the tools to be a fulfilled adult, but to enhance their earning power in whatever jobs happen to be in demand at a particular time (we’ll show you the difference between what high school and college graduates make).

These numbers may seem real. But when it comes to how we’re really doing — they don’t tell us much.