2/25: John de Graaf spoke at a University of Washington luncheon on his experience as an advisor to the government of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness and other international indices of well-being and happiness, the issues inherent in using Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of economic success, and the importance of focusing on quality of life rather than growth as an economic goal. Here are some highlights from John’s lecture:
David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute and former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, described the entire history of the earth over the course of one week. In this week, the earth was formed, life forms began, the dinosaurs lived and died, and in the 1/100th of a second left until that week would be over, humans populated the planet. In that 1/100th of a second, we have halved the world’s forests, fossil fuels, and fish population. We have used more resources than we can sustain, and we have caused the climate to change in a very short period of time. This activity is not sustainable – we need new limits. In order to achieve this, we have to talk about changing society’s core values. This will take rethinking prosperity.
One value that needs to change is materialism, or affluenza. Our current metrics encourage this value, among other values that have a negative impact on prosperity. GDP as a measure of prosperity creates the social norm that growth is the ultimate aspiration. But GDP doesn’t measure the aspects of society that don’t contribute to growth – even if they are necessary for a functioning society, like education, leisure, and volunteering. A focus on GDP can, therefore, run counter to happiness.
As Bobby Kennedy said: GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.” (to read more from this 1968 speech, click here)
While many people see GDP as a sign of positive growth, it can actually be viewed as a sign of decay. The growth, such as longer working hours, results in making more money – but we use that money to escape the problems caused by previous growth. For example, we may work longer to take a vacation – but if we were to share and shorten working hours, so that we all have a chance to work (not overwork), we would not need to escape.
Here’s another example that you may have noticed in your own experience: the Everett to Seattle morning commute is on average 20 minutes longer than it was only 2 years ago. The morning commute is already among the most unhappy times of the day!
One alternative to GDP is the Genuine Progress Indicator. Another alternative is Gross National Happiness. Unfortunately, many of those in power have a vested interest in preserving GDP and do not want these alternative measures to become popular. The governor of Oregon was forced to resign by the state News Media after a trip to Bhutan to study GNH. This trip, interestingly, was not funded by tax dollars. Instead, it was paid for by the government of Germany – a state which has had great success in its green economy.
You get what you measure – and we measure growth. It will take policy changes to improve our well-being, and personal skills to increase our happiness. It will take both to be prosperous! To increase happiness, we need to go outside, turn off our tvs, and grow interpersonal connections. To increase well-being, we can institute policies like basic income and job sharing.
Big businesses have a vested interest in preventing these changes, but change can happen quickly. Even Richard Branson has spoken in favor of shorter work weeks!
We need revolutionary reforms in a strategic path toward a goal of increased happiness and well-being.