In 1972 the King of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan introduced a fairly new and unconventional concept of social and economic progress measurement – Gross National Happiness. It is a symbol and a manifestation of the ever more widespread belief that GDP and its derivatives (GNP, GDI, GNI etc.) don’t provide what was long thought they do – an imperfect but nevertheless sensible proxy for a nation’s well-being. However, this raises the question: is happiness a better measure. There are reasons to believe that it is not.
Arguments against the interpretation of GDP as a proxy for well-being have been presented and discussed in this blog at some length, so I am not going to repeat them here. Many alternative measures have been proposed, including various corrections of GDP (e.g., for depreciation of natural capital or for defensive expenditures and household work [pdf]) as well as ones completely differing from the common standard, e.g. based on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. A rather common proposal, exemplified by Bhutan’s GNH index, has been to identify well-being with happiness. However, many problems arise when this approach is to be applied.
The first and most straightforward issue is the question: what is happiness? This term has actually two meanings, viz. being “contented with one’s lot” or being “lucky, fortunate” (according to my Concise Oxford Dictionary). The latter is quite hard to operationalize a term and can be hardly interpreted as being equal to well-being. The former is what I would rather call “satisfaction” or, for that matter, “life satisfaction”. It can be assumed that people identifying well-being with happiness have this more comprehensive interpretation in mind, rather than “luck” or “fortune” (having won in a lottery while dying from cancer can hardly be called being well).
The most central (though not necessarily the most difficult) problem of the happiness approach is the subjectivity of the notion. The idea and purpose of GNH and related proposals is to provide a guidance for policy measures that is more appropriate than the (allegedly) affluence as expressed in the GDP. However, people have fairly differing sources of satisfaction, and it cannot be objectively “defined” how its level may be influenced by a certain policy measure. Alas, we are not capable of asking everyone whether she or he will be happier after a particular project is conducted. We also hardly can survey people’s attitudes as to be able to “predict” changes in happiness.
Furthermore, there is the issue of aggregation, common to a varying extent for all social indices. How should satisfaction be aggregated across the population? How is satisfaction of particular individuals and groups to be weighted? These are difficult, possibly unanswerable questions.
Another problem that arises partly from subjectivity and may have the most tremendous consequences for the happiness approach is the empirically observed ability of human beings to adapt to adverse circumstances. Surveys of life satisfaction have shown that deprived people who are poor, hungry, unemployed etc. may be as satisfied with their lives as others whose circumstances are objectively far better. This can be seen as a kind of a mental self-protection mechanism. Moreover, there is the related issue of lack of information – there are people in the world who don’t know that they live in deprivation because they have no access to media and therefore are unable to set their situation in relation. It may be argued that what counts is that people are satisfied/happy. But this is a dangerous notion since it could justify keeping people ignorant of their relative circumstances in order to exploit them. Meanwhile, it is one of the main achievements of modern society that this has become ever less feasible due to the widespread access to the Internet and other media.
Can our needs be fully satisfied? This is an important question when we consider the appropriateness of such a subjective indicator of well-being as happiness/life satisfaction. As shown, among others, by Fred Hirsch in his Social Limits to Growth, some needs or, more poignantly, desires cannot be fulfilled. Or, even if they can, new desires develop as a consequence. How can progress then be measured if the baseline is changing all the time?
The problems I tried to outline here emphasize that identifying well-being with happiness goes in the wrong direction. What is needed is a more objective measure that can be operationalized and allows for aggregation. Such measures have been proposed but they have to be developed further. Indeed, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness is a composite index that doesn’t really evaluates happiness or satisfaction but rather a concept of capability. Happiness and satisfaction are highly important – but they are not good guidance for policy.