The economy is sometimes referred to as an entity outside of human control – it isn’t. We control the economy through policies and practices in each nation. The last half century focussed on growing the economy at the expense of all else from social care to the environment. We’ve seen massive growth in inequality alongside easier access to consumer growth. Given the state of the planet we know this won’t work for much longer. Accordingly, it’s time to rethink what we do to support economic growth and what kind of world we want to live in.
Meanwhile we could begin to boost quality of life simply by tracking it more explicitly: instead of focusing government policy on boosting GDP (the total dollar value of all goods and services produced domestically), why not aim to increase Gross National Happiness — as measured by a selected group of social indicators? These are ways to make economic shrinkage palatable; but how would policymakers actually go about putting the brakes on growth? One tactic would be to implement a shorter workweek. If people are working less, the economy will slow down — and meanwhile, everyone will have more time for family, rest, and cultural activities. We could also de-financialize the economy, discouraging wasteful speculation with a financial transaction tax and a 100 percent reserve requirement for banks.
Bhutan is a small country with a big idea that can change the world. For many years now gross national happiness is how the country monitors its progress, which is the opposite to how other countries measure success (which is from the quantity of money exchanged).
With a world population more knowledgable about environmental destruction there is an increasing concern that wealth accumulation outranks the needs of people. Gross national happiness can change how we measure progress.
Since 1971, the country has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress. In its place, it has championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.
For the past three decades, this belief that wellbeing should take preference over material growth has remained a global oddity. Now, in a world beset by collapsing financial systems, gross inequity and wide-scale environmental destruction, this tiny Buddhist state’s approach is attracting a lot of interest.
Second, the good news is that Bhutan’s research is being applied elsewhere, within the rubric of the burgeoning happiness studies.
Studies of life satisfaction around the world are now enhanced by regular polling in many countries using a broad range of questions, and have led to consistent findings in recent years that the highest levels of satisfaction are found in such northern European countries as Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden—countries with a strong sense of social solidarity and attention to work-life balance, small income gaps, and—contrary to the thinking of American conservatives—high taxation rates.
These studies find that many relatively income-poor nations, such as Costa Rica and Colombia, also have high rates of life satisfaction, leading one group of British researchers to establish a “Happy Planet Index,” dividing life satisfaction scores by ecological footprints. They find that many so-called developing countries actually rank at the top of their index.