The New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
October 4, 2005

A NEW MEASURE OF WELL-BEING FROM A HAPPY LITTLE KINGDOM

[Rachel's introduction: A precautionary approach means setting goals,
then working to achieve them in the least-harmful way. Bhutan, a
small country in the Himalayas, sets goals and gauges success not by
measuring money but by measuring Gross National Happiness.]

By Andrew C. Revkin

What is happiness? In the United States and in many other
industrialized countries, it is often equated with money.

Economists measure consumer confidence on the assumption that the
resulting figure says something about progress and public welfare. The
gross domestic product, or G.D.P., is routinely used as shorthand for
the well-being of a nation.

But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a
different idea.

In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing
countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned
leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's
priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared
across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural
traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive
government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at
accomplishing these goals.

Now Bhutan's example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a
catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.

Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists,
corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements
that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to
health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources
and other noneconomic factors.

The goal, according to many involved in this effort, is in part to
return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what
the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they
included "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right equal to
liberty and life itself.

The founding fathers, said John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political
philosopher, defined happiness as a balance of individual and
community interests. "The Enlightenment theory of happiness was an
expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of
the people," Mr. Saul said. And, he added, this could not be further
from "the 20th-century idea that you should smile because you're at
Disneyland."

Mr. Saul was one of about 400 people from more than a dozen countries
who gathered recently to consider new ways to define and assess
prosperity.

The meeting, held at St. Francis Xavier University in northern Nova
Scotia, was a mix of soft ideals and hard-nosed number crunching. Many
participants insisted that the focus on commerce and consumption that
dominated the 20th century need not be the norm in the 21st century.

Among the attendees were three dozen representatives from Bhutan --
teachers, monks, government officials and others -- who came to
promote what the Switzerland-size country has learned about building a
fulfilled, contented society.

While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world's lowest,
life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66
years. The country, which is preparing to shift to a constitution and
an elected government, requires that at least 60 percent of its lands
remain forested, welcomes a limited stream of wealthy tourists and
exports hydropower to India.

"We have to think of human well-being in broader terms," said Lyonpo
Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's home minister and ex-prime minister.
"Material well-being is only one component. That doesn't ensure that
you're at peace with your environment and in harmony with each
other."

It is a concept grounded in Buddhist doctrine, and even a decade ago
it might have been dismissed by most economists and international
policy experts as naive idealism.

Indeed, America's brief flirtation with a similar concept,
encapsulated in E.F. Schumacher's 1973 bestseller "Small Is
Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered," ended abruptly with the
huge and continuing burst of consumer-driven economic growth that
exploded first in industrialized countries and has been spreading in
fast-growing developing countries like China.

Yet many experts say it was this very explosion of affluence that
eventually led social scientists to realize that economic growth is
not always synonymous with progress.

In the early stages of a climb out of poverty, for a household or a
country, incomes and contentment grow in lockstep. But various studies
show that beyond certain thresholds, roughly as annual per capita
income passes $10,000 or $20,000, happiness does not keep up.

And some countries, studies found, were happier than they should be.
In the World Values Survey, a project under way since 1995, Ronald
Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, found
that Latin American countries, for example, registered far more
subjective happiness than their economic status would suggest.

In contrast, countries that had experienced communist rule were
unhappier than noncommunist countries with similar household incomes
-- even long after communism had collapsed.

"Some types of societies clearly do a much better job of enhancing
their people's sense of happiness and well-being than other ones even
apart from the somewhat obvious fact that it's better to be rich than
to be poor," Dr. Inglehart said.

Even more striking, beyond a certain threshold of wealth people appear
to redefine happiness, studies suggest, focusing on their relative
position in society instead of their material status.

Nothing defines this shift better than a 1998 survey of 257 students,
faculty and staff members at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the study, the researchers, Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway,
gave the subjects a choice of earning $50,000 a year in a world where
the average salary was $25,000 or $100,000 a year where the average
was $200,000.

About 50 percent of the participants, the researchers found, chose the
first option, preferring to be half as prosperous but richer than
their neighbors.

Such findings have contributed to the new effort to broaden the way
countries and individuals gauge the quality of life -- the subject of
the Nova Scotia conference.

But researchers have been hard pressed to develop measuring techniques
that can capture this broader concept of well-being.

One approach is to study how individuals perceive the daily flow of
their lives, having them keep diary-like charts reflecting how various
activities, from paying bills to playing softball, make them feel.

A research team at Princeton is working with the Bureau of Labor
Statistics to incorporate this kind of charting into its new "time
use" survey, which began last year and is given to 4,000 Americans
each month.

"The idea is to start with life as we experience it and then try to
understand what helps people feel fulfilled and create conditions that
generate that," said Dr. Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist
working on the survey.

For example, he said, subjecting students to more testing in order to
make them more competitive may equip them to succeed in the American
quest for ever more income. But that benefit would have to be balanced
against the problems that come with the increased stress imposed by
additional testing.

"We should not be hoping to construct a utopia," Professor Krueger
said. "What we should be talking about is piecemeal movement in the
direction of things that make for a better life."

Another strategy is to track trends that can affect a community's
well-being by mining existing statistics from censuses, surveys and
government agencies that track health, the environment, the economy
and other societal barometers.

The resulting scores can be charted in parallel to see how various
indicators either complement or impede each other.

In March, Britain said it would begin developing such an "index of
well-being," taking into account not only income but mental illness,
civility, access to parks and crime rates.

In June, British officials released their first effort along those
lines, a summary of "sustainable development indicators" intended to
be a snapshot of social and environmental indicators like crime,
traffic, pollution and recycling levels.

"What we do in one area of our lives can have an impact on many
others, so joined-up thinking and action across central and local
government is crucial," said Elliot Morley, Britain's environment
minister.

In Canada, Hans Messinger, the director of industry measures and
analysis for Statistics Canada, has been working informally with about
20 other economists and social scientists to develop that country's
first national index of well-being.

Mr. Messinger is the person who, every month, takes the pulse of his
country's economy, sifting streams of data about cash flow to generate
the figure called gross domestic product. But for nearly a decade, he
has been searching for a better way of measuring the quality of life.

"A sound economy is not an end to itself, but should serve a purpose,
to improve society," Mr. Messinger said.

The new well-being index, Mr. Messinger said, will never replace the
G.D.P. For one thing, economic activity, affected by weather, labor
strikes and other factors, changes far more rapidly than other
indicators of happiness.

But understanding what fosters well-being, he said, can help policy
makers decide how to shape legislation or regulations.

Later this year, the Canadian group plans to release a first attempt
at an index -- an assessment of community health, living standards and
people's division of time among work, family, voluntarism and other
activities. Over the next several years, the team plans to integrate
those findings with measurements of education, environmental quality,
"community vitality" and the responsiveness of government. Similar
initiatives are under way in Australia and New Zealand.

Ronald Colman, a political scientist and the research director for
Canada's well-being index, said one challenge was to decide how much
weight to give different indicators.

For example, Dr. Colman said, the amount of time devoted to volunteer
activities in Canada has dropped more than 12 percent in the last
decade.

"That's a real decline in community well-being, but that loss counts
for nothing in our current measure of progress," he said.

But shifts in volunteer activity also cannot be easily assessed
against cash-based activities, he said.

"Money has nothing to do with why volunteers do what they do," Dr.
Colman said. "So how, in a way that's transparent and
methodologically decent, do you come up with composite numbers that
are meaningful?"

In the end, Canada's index could eventually take the form of a report
card rather than a single G.D.P.-like number.

In the United States there have been a few experiments, like the
Princeton plan to add a happiness component to labor surveys. But the
focus remains on economics. The Census Bureau, for instance, still
concentrates on collecting information about people's financial
circumstances and possessions, not their perceptions or feelings, said
Kurt J. Bauman, a demographer there.

But he added that there was growing interest in moving away from
simply tracking indicators of poverty, for example, to looking more
comprehensively at social conditions.

"Measuring whether poverty is going up or down is different than
measuring changes in the ability of a family to feed itself," he
said. "There definitely is a growing perception out there that if you
focus too narrowly, you're missing a lot of the picture."

That shift was evident at the conference on Bhutan, organized by Dr.
Colman, who is from Nova Scotia. Participants focused on an array of
approaches to the happiness puzzle, from practical to radical.

John de Graaf, a Seattle filmmaker and campaigner trying to cut the
amount of time people devote to work, wore a T-shirt that said,
"Medieval peasants worked less than you do."

In an open discussion, Marc van Bogaert from Belgium described his
path to happiness: "I want to live in a world without money."

Al Chaddock, a painter from Nova Scotia, immediately offered a
suggestion: "Become an artist."

Other attendees insisted that old-fashioned capitalism could persist
even with a shift to goals broader than just making money.

Ray C. Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc., an Atlanta-based
carpet company with nearly $1 billion in annual sales, described his
company's 11-year-old program to cut pollution and switch to renewable
materials.

Mr. Anderson said he was "a radical industrialist, but as competitive
as anyone you know and as profit-minded."

Some experts who attended the weeklong conference questioned whether
national well-being could really be defined. Just the act of trying to
quantify happiness could threaten it, said Frank Bracho, a Venezuelan
economist and former ambassador to India. After all, he said, "The
most important things in life are not prone to measurement -- like
love."

But Mr. Messinger argued that the weaknesses of the established model,
dominated by economics, demanded the effort.

Other economists pointed out that happiness itself can be illusory.

"Even in a very miserable condition you can be very happy if you are
grateful for small mercies," said Siddiqur Osmani, a professor of
applied economics from the University of Ulster in Ireland. "If
someone is starving and hungry and given two scraps of food a day, he
can be very happy."

Bhutanese officials at the meeting described a variety of initiatives
aimed at creating the conditions that are most likely to improve the
quality of life in the most equitable way.

Bhutan, which had no public education system in 1960, now has schools
at all levels around the country and rotates teachers from urban to
rural regions to be sure there is equal access to the best teachers,
officials said.

Another goal, they said, is to sustain traditions while advancing.
People entering hospitals with nonacute health problems can choose
Western or traditional medicine.

The more that various effects of a policy are considered, and not
simply the economic return, the more likely a country is to achieve a
good balance, said Sangay Wangchuk, the head of Bhutan's national
parks agency, citing agricultural policies as an example.

Bhutan's effort, in part, is aimed at avoiding the pattern seen in the
study at Harvard, in which relative wealth becomes more important than
the quality of life.

"The goal of life should not be limited to production, consumption,
more production and more consumption," said Thakur S. Powdyel, a
senior official in the Bhutanese Ministry of Education. "There is no
necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level
of well-being."

Mr. Saul, the Canadian political philosopher, said that Bhutan's shift
in language from "product" to "happiness" was a profound move in
and of itself.

Mechanisms for achieving and tracking happiness can be devised, he
said, but only if the goal is articulated clearly from the start.

"It's ideas which determine the directions in which civilizations
go," Mr. Saul said. "If you don't get your ideas right, it doesn't
matter what policies you try to put in place."

Still, Bhutan's model may not work for larger countries. And even in
Bhutan, not everyone is happy. Members of the country's delegation
admitted their experiment was very much a work in progress, and they
acknowledged that poverty and alcoholism remained serious problems.

The pressures of modernization are also increasing. Bhutan linked
itself to the global cultural pipelines of television and the Internet
in 1999, and there have been increasing reports in its nascent media
of violence and disaffection, particularly among young people.

Some attendees, while welcoming Bhutan's goal, gently criticized the
Bhutanese officials for dealing with a Nepali-speaking minority mainly
by driving tens of thousands of them out of the country in recent
decades, saying that was not a way to foster happiness.

"Bhutan is not a pure Shangri-La, so idyllic and away from all those
flaws and foibles," conceded Karma Pedey, a Bhutanese educator
dressed in a short dragon-covered jacket and a floor-length rainbow-
striped traditional skirt.

But, looking around a packed auditorium, she added: "At same time,
I'm very, very happy we have made a global impact."

Copyright The New Uork Times 2005