Wellbeing as a policy objective

Ever since the 70s when the king of Bhutan suggested the idea of a Gross National Happiness metric to replace the Gross National Product, academics and politicians have explored the notion of softer research for measuring national progress. The UN developed their Human Development Programme which provided a much broader set of indices for nations to measure their progress and success against other nations. Likewise, many have followed suit with the Happy Planet Index, Genuine Progress Indicators, etc.

In what ways may happiness and wellbeing be useful as metrics for national progress and international success? Brookings Senior Fellow Carol Graham says higher levels of wellbeing translate into greater productivity in the workplace, and people report to be less happy when they make less than $60,000USD annually. Above that optimal salary, the measurement of happiness becomes much more complex. The Legatum Institute also posits opportunity and balance as necessities for prosperity and wellbeing. People in countries with faster rates of growth are less happy than those with slower rates. Fast growth means change and uncertainty, and people adapt to unpleasant certainty more readily than uncertainty. However, for people without the opportunity to change their station, day-to-day things matter more—greater focus on friendship, religion, etc.—which means contentment rather than necessarily happiness. So while uncertainty reduces wellbeing, the confidence to exploit opportunities raises it tremendously.

The balance between certainty and opportunity provides fuel for theories of human development because certainty of basic needs like food and water leads to a desire for higher aspirations. Maslow’s hierarchy of need and the theory of Spiral Dynamics may have their critics, but the simple fact remains that the more needs an individual is able to satisfy, the more developed the person is likely to be. Therefore, the more highly developed individuals a nation has, the more developed that nation is likely to be. If the Occupy Wall Street protests going global should tell economists and politicians anything, it is that GDP should not be the only metric of growth. If people feel their needs to be unmet, they eventually act out. If economists and politicians measure various forms of wellbeing on top of GDP, they may find weak signals of unrest which could eventually turn disruptive. Clearly these weak signals could then be attended but only if softer measures are adopted. Even the OECD is developing such metrics, but other organizations are still slow to adjust to the changing needs of global society.

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