Quality of life researcher Talita Greyline, an economist at the University of Johannesberg, was simultaneously hopeful and skeptical when she traveled from South Africa to Burlington, Vermont, for the Gross National Happiness USA conference. Being from a place with unemployment of 45% and, as she said, "not that much happiness," she was eager to learn how she might help change the lives of people in her country. But, she said, "From an economist's point of view, it's very funny, because happiness is not objectively measurable."
There's a new movement around the world among social scientists, economists and community leaders to measure quality of life — and to factor it into the metrics used to gauge the health of the economy. Disenchantment with the Gross Domestic Product, a widely used figure that calculates all the goods and services an economy produces, is fueling the shift. Its detractors say GDP paints an incomplete picture.
"We ought to rename GDP so it becomes clearer what it is — Gross Domestic Transactions, the commotion of money in the economy," said Eric Zencey, professor of historical and political studies at Empire State College. "We can make the money go faster, we can make there be more money, but that doesn't necessarily lead to more improvements in well-being."
And well-being, said the speakers at this three-day event, has too long got the short shrift.
"If you cut down all the forests tomorrow, that's great for Gross Domestic Product," said Ron Colman, the founder of Genuine Progress Index for Atlantic Canada. "The only problem is that next year, you have nothing to produce any more, because you have no more timber."
It's not just the depletion of natural resources that's tallied as an economic gain, he said: "Pollution, sickness, wars, crime — a lot of things which signify a decline in well-being boost GDP because money is spent. "
Eager to find new, sustainable and human-friendly models, GDP naysayers have been studying the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan for clues and indicators to apply to their own communities. Thirty years ago, Bhutan's former King said he valued his people's "Gross National Happiness" far more than he did its gross domestic product. His offhand remark, tied to the nation's Buddhist roots, unwittingly launched an international movement.
For decades it was little more than a pithy slogan used to support Bhutan's claim to outsiders that it was the "last Shangri-la." But as the economic crisis has deepened and launched a scramble for new ways of thinking, Bhutan has been scurrying these last few years to quantify just what GNH is — and how other places might gauge it, and implement it. A matrix of nine domains and 72 indicators have been crafted, ranging from "psychological well-being," "time use," and "living standards."
"Development with values," is how Karma Tshiteem, Bhutan's secretary of Gross National Happiness, describes the policy. "Everything is interdependent, and we cannot pursue things in our own narrow way. GNH is to show we are more focused on creating the right conditions to help people lead focused, fulfilling lives."
Critics of Gross National Happiness say Bhutan can hardly be held up as a model. The nation is poor, literacy is low, and the government is under fire for expelling close to twenty years ago of 60,000 people they claim lived illegally in the country. Ironically, the largest concentration per capita of Bhutanese refugees is said to live in the state of Vermont, not far from where the conference was held.
Advocates of a new way of thinking about the economy say focusing on Bhutan's problems masks the deeper lessons to be learned from the underpinnings of GNH. "As a society, we have not taken the issue of time seriously at all," said John de Graaf, founder of the Take Back Your Time movement to combat the societal "time famine" plaguing our 24/7 world: "Our focus has been on growing more, faster and faster. One of the sacrifices we've made on this hedonic treadmill is the sacrifice of time. Less time with each other, less time taking care of ourselves, our communities, our environmental health."
In the end, Talita Greyline from South Africa was happy she made the trip. She looked forward to presenting what she learned about GDP and GNH to the minister of finance on her return home. As for Bhutan's Karma Tshiteem, he says any movement to adopt GNH has to be realistic and focus more on quality of life than on the subjective nature of happiness: "Happiness is really fleeting and very individual."
Lisa Napoli has been a reporter and columnist for The New York Times and a reporter and host for the public radio show Marketplace. She is the author of Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth (Crown, Feb. 2011).