Happiness and Wealth… A Skewed Relationship

AND he is handsome!

AND he is handsome!

Some of the most status challenging ideas come not from intellectuals pouring over books and debating with one another at universities, nor “big idea” politicians trumpeting populist sound bites at rallies or on television.  Sometimes they come from obscure places most American’s haven’t heard of and couldn’t locate on a map even if it was already circled.  Such a place is Bhutan (yes, I had to look it up on a map).

Gross National Happiness

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan is known in the international community for two notable things: upon taking the throne in 1972 at the age of 17 he was the youngest monarch in the world, and in instituted modern day reform and industry in Bhutan.  Where once television, hospitals, education and elections were rare to unknown they are all commonplace now, Bhutan’s isolationist ways eroding as it opens up to the international community.  I digress, however.  I mention King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Bhutan not to tell you about the meaningful reforms and selflessness of its former ruler (he abdicated to his eldest son in 2008), but to discuss the interesting way in which Bhutan measures its progress in the world.  All other countries use a measure called GDT, or Gross Domestic Product, which is the measure of all goods created and services rendered in a country over a given period of time.  When talking heads yap about the “economy shrinking” as if it is a penis left out in the cold, they are referring to GDP shrinkage.  Bhutan interestingly rejects the very notion of GDP, and uses a measure called GNH, or Gross National Happiness.

A Valid Measure of the Wrong Things

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck did not reject the notion of GDP because he felt it was mathematically wrong, or as an attempt to alter international perception, or to hide a tipped economy.  He simply felt if measured the wrong things.  “Why are we so obsessed and focused with gross domestic product?” he asked a journalist inquiring about the country’s economy. “Why don’t we care more about gross national happiness?” According to his logic, GDP is flawed in two primary ways.  One, GDP measures parts of the economy and human nature in general that some would say represent the antithesis of progress, such as industry that propagates war, health care for preventable disease, malpractice settlements, and perhaps others you can think of (of course the list will depend on who you ask, but the very fact we can even come up with our own lists speaks to the truth in King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s logic).  Two, wealth increases do not correlate to increases in happiness, a fact researchers have known for quite some time now.

A Kennedy Sums it up

I have spoken to the correlation of happiness to wealth in articles on shopping addiction, taking inventory of your life, and of course enoughness.  All those a great reads that will surely change your life forever akin to a religious awakening, but I think a man who grew up literally down the street from me, albeit in a different era, speaks to the first point in King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s reasoning best:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

-Robert F. Kennedy, 1968


The second point in King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s is best illustrated with a graph:

Happiness and GDP


Source: Beyond Current Horizons, Nattavudh Powdthavee, University of York


Bring Your Entourage to Watch Sex in the City

The idea of happiness correlating with wealth is an idea we all struggle to reject in our day to day lives.  Our culture simply permeates reinforcement, from episodes of Entourage or Sex in the City (which, let’s face it, is the same show) to the covers of our magazines, all practically slap us in the face with its expensive, ring laden hand so when we look ourselves in the mirror every night before bed we can see the ring marks and be reminded of how much our economy offers that we are not or cannot take advantage of.  Yet it’s that very look in the mirror that tells us the truth of the matter: increases in wealth only add to our happiness in a limited fashion, like how an increase in cocaine quality only adds to a high for a limited time, but man does it leave you wanting more.  Once you buy into the addiction it’s hard to break the habit.

Furry Disappointments

Bhutan has recognized that increases in wealth begin to provide diminishing returns after a certain extent, and so explains the flat Mean Happiness line in the graph above.  This is largely because, researchers believe, as increased wealth extends throughout a nation, our expectations for increased wealth rise as well and since expectations often overextend reality we are left underwhelmed by our newfound wealth, like day-dreaming about sleeping with someone only to get the chance and then finding out they are a Furry.

Bhutan currently has nine index variables it measures to keep track of the countries GNH[1].  The country believes that GNH is a measure that reflects its priorities as a country, and the government’s duty to its people.  Among the questions it asks its citizens when measuring GNH are:

    • How often do you experience of frustration?

  • How often do you experience of frustration?
  • If you are an audience to traditional [language based] exchange, would you be able to understand the contents?
  • How many hours do you sleep a night?
  • How long does it usually take you to walk to the nearest health care centre?
  • Is killing or stealing justifiable?
  • How safe do you feel when walking alone in your neighborhood or village after dark from human harm?
  • How well does your total household income meet your family’s everyday needs for food, shelter and clothing?
  • Would you say this is a neighborhood where neighbors help one another?

Everything that makes us Americans

I am not advocating that the United States take up an official GNH measure, although many institutions and researchers come up with similar but obviously more limited measures all the time.  There is no national measure, but if there was one what do you think the result would be?  How would you answer questions like those above?  How do you imagine someone from a poor neighborhood would answer them?  Consumer confidence is near an all time low, the rich continue to get richer, the middle class is getting squeezed, America’s credit just got downgraded, and our culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum from enoughness.  We are the richest country in the world by far but fall into sixteenth place as the happiest.  Perhaps it is time we start to measure ourselves, at least individually, not on our job title or income, not on our house or car, not on the vacations we go on or the crowd we keep, but on our wit and courage, wisdom and learning, compassion and devotion; everything in short, which makes life worthwhile, everything that makes us Americans. 

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One response to “Happiness and Wealth… A Skewed Relationship

  1. Pingback: Becoming Rich in America |·

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