How should we measure the progress that we make as society and nations? The ridiculousness of our reliance on GDP performance (Gross Domestic Product) is so evident that decisions taken on this basis are becoming dangerous. GDP is a monochromatic aggregate number that takes into account everything that a nation "produces", including wars, epidemics, pollution, etc - all on the "plus" side. Alternatives are needed. My American friend Eric Weiner, who's writing a book on the geography of happiness (see my other blog for details - and if you are Swiss or live in Switzerland, please do take a couple of minutes to consider the questions in that post and maybe add your comments) is just back from a trip to Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation that has invented a radically new metric: Gross National Happiness. He wrote in an article for the Los Angeles Times:
Bhutanese officials make decisions based, in part, on whether they will contribute to the nation's collective happiness. (...) This means sometimes making decisions that, from an economist's point of view, make no sense. Bhutan, a beautiful land of mountains and temples, has forsaken millions of tourist dollars by, in effect, restricting the number of foreign visitors. (It does this by charging a $200 daily fee.) And while other developing countries have sold off their natural resources to the highest bidder, Bhutan has hardly touched its timber and minerals. The country also has taken some unusual steps to protect its Tibetan Buddhist culture. (...) We might find such rules onerous but, having recently spent several weeks in the country, I found most Bhutanese happily accept such trade-offs.
The Bhutanese, of course, are enticed by the goodies of the West. Cellphones and Internet cafes are in vogue, and there is more than one disco in the capital (though no traffic lights). But many Bhutanese are willing to forsake money for happiness; for a slower, more human pace of life. The vast majority of Bhutanese who study abroad, for instance, return to their homeland, where they earn a fraction of what they could earn in the West.
Of course the concept of GNH may be an easy slogan to cover government ineptitude or worse. And Bhutan has crime and unhappy people, and is still a poor country. But the Bhutanese approach reframes the question about growth as the best - or the only - way for a country to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of its citizens. One Chinese province is developing a happiness index, writes Eric, and the leader of Britain's Conservative Party has floated the idea of General Well-Being as a way to gauge a nation's progress.