Undercover Economist

Why happiness is easy to venerate, hard to generate

In 1972, the teenage king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, declared that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product”. The sound bite has been echoed approvingly down the years, although the king may just have been making excuses. Bhutanese GDP per person was then the grinding poverty of about a dollar a day. If I were king of such a country, I’d be tempted to change the subject, too.

Clearly he had a point. Most of us would rather be poor and happy than rich and depressed. If so, gross national happiness seems a fine goal. But it is one thing for a monarch to announce that happiness is important. It’s quite another to make people happy. Shangri-La does not move from fiction to reality just because we desire it.

Bhutan has not always lived up to its own hype. Same-sex intercourse is illegal, which suggests a country with a less-than-expansive view of whose happiness matters. Three decades ago, around 100,000 of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa minority fled Bhutan to escape military persecution during a campaign of ethnic cleansing on a colossal scale. One-sixth of the entire population of Bhutan ended up in refugee camps in Nepal.

Even setting aside this enormity, it’s hard to see that Bhutan paid much more than lip service to gross national happiness. They hosted conferences, but according to a recent IMF working paper, nobody in the government collected systematic indicators on happiness until 2005. The World Happiness Report ranks Bhutan at 97th out of 156 countries, down from 84th a few years ago. Happiness is easy to venerate, but hard to generate.

Perhaps I am doing a disservice to a small kingdom wedged between sparring regional powers. It can’t be easy. And Bhutan has a lesson to teach us all — maybe we should think a little less about over-arching goals and a little more about specifics.

Consider some of the issues that are notoriously bypassed by GDP, the most common measure of economic activity: digital services are hard to value, while by design GDP omits any consideration of inequality or environmental damage. Unpaid work — of which men do a great deal, and women a great deal more — is also left out.

But if our aim is (for example) to reduce carbon emissions, we don’t achieve it by moaning about GDP. We achieve it with specific policies such as carbon taxes and investments in public transport and a renewable-friendly electric grid. Neither gender equality nor respect for unpaid work would be automatically improved by any change in the way national income accounts are computed.

And when Bobby Kennedy movingly commented that GDP “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages”, he was quite right. Nevertheless I fail to see how any solution follows, whether for connubial harmony or American verse.

The specifics matter when it comes to happiness, too. Broad research into the causes of national happiness has tended to produce banal conclusions: we tend to compare ourselves to others, unemployment makes us miserable, and we hate being ill. There is nothing here to suggest that we need to overhaul commonplace policies such as redistributive taxation, the avoidance of recessions, and support for public health.

Just as with GDP itself, it is only when we move to the specifics that gross national happiness becomes useful. Richard Layard, one of the leading happiness researchers, argues that mental illness is a leading cause of misery, and that it can be treated very cost-effectively. That seems useful enough to me.

What is not useful is the sense that measuring GDP is the problem, and measuring gross national happiness is the solution. Few societies have ever really focused on either. We should all be happy about that.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 1 March 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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