Should we measure a country’s prosperity by its happiness?


The scope for measuring national happiness goes far beyond gross domestic product, writes Lee Williams.

Measuring a nation’s prosperity by its happiness sounds like the sort of fuzzy, modern idea that gets laughed down in policy meetings. But as long ago as 1968 Robert Kennedy called for a new method, condemning the traditional Gross National Product as measuring “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Now, almost 50 years later, it is an idea that governments and organisations all over the world are taking seriously. In 1972, just a few years after Kennedy’s memorable speech, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan coined the term ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). But it wasn’t until 2008 that the Bhutanese government officially began to measure GNH. Since then other measures of wellbeing and happiness have sprung up all over the world, from the World Happiness Report, to the OECD’s ‘How’s Life’ to the UN’s Human Development Index. The time has finally come, it seems, for policymakers to wake up to Kennedy’s prescient remarks about the limitations of GNP and GDP.

“Why do governments think GDP is important?” says Karen Jeffrey, a researcher for the New Economics Foundation (NEF). “Because they think having more money is better for people. But it’s not. If you’re trying to make people’s lives better you might as well focus on the exact thing you’re trying to do rather than using economic growth as a proxy because the evidence shows that it’s not a good proxy.”

The Happy Planet Index

The NEF has created its own measure of wellbeing, the Happy Planet Index, which also takes into account sustainability and life expectancy. The Happy Planet Index uses the simple formula of multiplying wellbeing by life expectancy and dividing it by ecological footprint to produce what it calls ‘Happy LifeYears’. The top five countries according to this index might sound surprising –CostaRica,Vietnam,Colombia,BelizeandElSalvador.“They’re not necessarily the happiest,” says Jeffrey referring to the number one, Costa Rica, “because there are three different elements but what they are is the country that manages to produce the longest, happiest lives using the least resources.”

The NEF is currently working on another index, which it hopes will provide governments with a simple measurement of progress using just a handful of indicators like wellbeing, environmental impact, inequality and health. “If you want progress measured in a new way,” says Jeffrey, “you have to compete with GDP which has been super-effective because it’s just one number and policy makers can look at it and say, it’s going up and we’re going in the right direction.”

Gross National Happiness

Professor Sabina Alkire, director of Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative, believes we already have such an index – Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.

GNH, according to Alkire, is a method which belies its fluffy- sounding name to provide a comprehensive and powerful tool for policy makers to base decisions on. Unlike many of the other indices which use average measurements, according to Alkire, GNH looks at each person’s life and measures it across nine ‘domains’ that contribute to overall wellbeing – health, education, living standards, environment, governance, time use, community, culture and psychological wellbeing. People are considered ‘deeply happy’ if they have achievements across more than 77 per cent of the domains and ‘not happy’ if under half.

The granular nature of the data means that wellbeing figures can also be broken down into age, gender, religion and all kinds of other considerations. GNH also stands apart as being a more holistic measurement of wellbeing, according to Alkire. “Philosophically happiness in the west is individual but it often tends to be selfish and doesn’t take into account the environment, responsibility, solidarity or community,” she says.


Surprisingly then, the UK has started its own index which could rival GNH for the number and range of factors it takes into account. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) began its Personal Wellbeing Annual Population Survey in 2011, measuring wellbeing over a range of 10 different factors including the environment, relationships and health.

“We see personal wellbeing as only one aspect of wellbeing,” says Lucy Tinkler, head of measuring personal wellbeing at ONS. “We look at other things like social data, inequalities, the environment as well as economic resources like household GDP.”

So far the survey has found that health, employment and relationship status are the three most important factors affecting wellbeing in the UK. It also found that rural areas score higher than urban zones and that middle-aged people are less happy than other age groups – important data which can enable organisations to target sectors of society that are doing less well. “We hope that policymakers will be able to use the data both at local and national level, and charities as well, to embed improving wellbeing into their policies,” says Tinkler.

As well as helping policymakers, easily accessible measures of wellbeing could lead to better-informed and politically-engaged citizens, according to Jeffrey. “I’d like to see a small number of headline indicators,” she says, “which reflect the things citizens really care about and would encourage them to be more engaged in politics, taking an interest and wanting to hold their government to account on those indicators.”


Professor Alkire thinks we can go even further and use measures of wellbeing to learn new ways to be happy. She gives the example of a case study in Bhutan which looked at the lives of those ranked ‘deeply happy’. One of them was an illiterate peasant farmer who lived a simple life with none of the trappings of modern civilisation. “Really drawing out different stories about how people have achieved happiness,” says Alkire, “is a kind of social learning which makes us appreciate diversity but also learn how people who have certain constraints in their life are still able to flourish. Happiness is a skill you can learn. In a sense your subjective state is a barometer of the extent to which you’ve learned the skill of being happy in very different circumstances of life.”

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Photo credit: Fergus Macdonald from Flickr




  1. This is neoliberal philosophy 101 dressed up as something more benevolent.

    The happiness industry and its complicity in cultural pedagogy and neoliberal govermentality has been heavily research and problematised.

    All it does is focus on developing qualities of atomistic indivdualism and turns us away from working with each other for real social and structural changes