December 15, 2014

Why Measuring Gross National Happiness Is So Difficult

Mark D. White

Chair, Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island

If the government truly wants to increase national happiness and well-being, the best thing it can do is to leave choices to those who know what happiness means to them — the people themselves.

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Anyone who has taken an introductory macroeconomics course knows that gross domestic product is an inadequate measure of the average citizen’s standard of living. For example, nonmarket output (such as household labor) is not included, quality improvements are difficult to account for and issues of distribution are completely absent. GDP is an imperfect measure of economic output, much less general well-being.

These problems have led policymakers around the world to turn instead to modern psychological research that promises accurate measures of happiness and well-being. After all, why rely on an imperfect proxy of well-being such as GDP if you can measure people’s well-being directly? While the motivation behind the “gross national happiness” movement is clear, however, its apparently straightforward nature conceals a number of problems that severely limit its usefulness.

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