Sunday, March 18, 2007

Gross National Happiness (GNH) : An Inane Concept

Have you ever wondered what happiness is? Happiness is quite often equated with money. The gross domestic product, or GDP, is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation. But the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been toying with a completely different idea for a while. King Wangchuck has decided to make his nation’s priority not its GDP but its GNH. And believe it or not but the most unlikely place on earth for the birth of an international trend is emerging as a global leader in the promotion of this whole new concept of the 'Gross National Happiness.'

According to Wiki, Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an attempt to define quality of life in more holistic and psychological terms than GDP. The concept of GNH is based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

I am sure we all will agree that happiness is a feeling, a subjective experience. I may say “I am happy” just as I may say “I am rich.” The two statements sound similar but these statements are qualitatively different. There is an objective validity to the statement “I am rich” because my wealth can be measured. But happiness is subjective and does not allow interpersonal comparisons, while richness does. We can definitely say how A’s wealth compares to B’s wealth but cannot say how A’s happiness compares to B’s happiness.

GDP is a measure of the annual production of final goods and services in an economy denominated in monetary terms. GDP does not aggregate cows. Thus saying that the GDP does not accurately tell me anything about how many cows are in the economy is as silly as saying that GDP does not tell me whether the people in the country are happy or not!

I have never considered the GDP to be the end-all and be-all of an economy any more than I consider the monthly income to be the only relevant characteristic of a person. Those who complain that GDP is not all that matters are making a valid but rather trivial complaint. What I don’t understand is the attempt by the detractors of GDP aping a metric which they have perhaps misunderstood. They are in effect saying that GDP does not measure happiness. So we must come up with an alternate aggregate measure we will call Gross National Happiness which will be more appropriate. That is GNS - Gross National Stupidity ;-) Tomorrow they may say that GDP does not give a count of the number of cows so we should come up with some kind of Gross National Cow index!


Kaali said...

Sorry that you think this way Ashish. I think the king of Bhutan came up with this concept when he (like most Bhutanese) got tired of having Bhutan being referred to as the poorest country in the world, with the lowest GDP index when in fact our people have far better lives than many other countries in the world - even compared to its neighbors like Nepal, India, bangldesh, and Pakistan.

Our people are not only self-sufficient but they are content and that is what happiness is and that is what we truly care about - you can talk to any Bhutanese although this does not include the southern Bhutanese population who have their allegiance to Nepal and have concocted horrible stories of ethnic cleansing etc. but that is another story.

So when others who have different stds of measuring happiness by placing importance on other things like GDP etc, we have rightly told the world that we believe in GNH. Yes money is what drives the world today but it should be a consolation that there is one country who has shifted this emphasis. If you don't believe in it, then thats too bad, just focus on your aims of making more money instead of worrying about other people's objectives.

Ashish said...


Sorry for the late reply. I respect your views but Sir, I believe that you have completely miscalculated what I wanted to say. GDP is NOT a standard for measuring happiness. It never was and it never will be. But GDP is by far the most important means of calculating a country's "economic" growth. And it's insane to say that GNH should replace GDP!

GDP does not measure happiness. True. But it is not meant to do so in the first place. I admire the king's innovative thinking but my dear friend, tell me how do you measure happiness?? Happiness is a feeling. Can you tell me who's happier of the two of us? ;-) The point is, happiness cannot be measured. It is not tractable. Then how do you expect to calculate a country's growth in terms of GNH?

Indeed happiness is the ultimate desideratum of human existence. But I believe happiness is not commensurable unlike objective quantities - natural quantities such as mass, temperature, distance and time, or artificial quantities such as money and the stock index.

Replacing GDP with GNH is flawed since both are measures of different things and moreover, GNH is, as you would agree, not even an accurate measure of happiness.