Happiness: Is there a price? (1/2)

By Ana Lopez de Arenosa, GLOBUS Correspondent

“Money can’t buy happiness”

This is a statement we will all have heard many times, probably most often as a child, when the value of money was not as important during that period of your life as it has come to be now. Yet the validity of this phrase continues to be relevant: can we actually buy happiness? Will achieving a certain level of income or having a certain material good make us happier with our lives? Growing up, I tried to believe that it couldn’t – yet research has begun to suggest otherwise.

The most important thing that must be mentioned at this stage is the fact that happiness in itself is a subjective and undefined concept – what makes me happy might not make you happy, and there is no clear definition of what true happiness is. For this reason, it makes it very difficult to quantify and measure happiness. However, this has not stopped people from trying. For example, one of the most famous methods in which the quantifying of happiness has been attempted has been through the Gross National Happiness index introduced in Bhutan. This is a sustainable and holistic measure of development which attempts to balance different kinds of ‘development’ in ways which make the individual happy, as opposed to just measuring changes to aggregate national output: essentially, working to measure national happiness through more fundamental, human values.

The measure is based on four central ‘pillars’: good governance, sustainable economic development, preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation. By combining all four of these aspects, the measure aims to create a more holistic viewpoint of the Bhutanese people in order to have an objective view of what it is that needs to be changed in order to improve holistic standards of living. These four pillars consist of nine domains forming the basis for the GNH index, consisting of:

  1. Living standards
  2. Education
  3. Health
  4. Environment
  5. Community Vitality
  6. Time-use
  7. Psychological well-being
  8. Good Governance
  9. Cultural resilience and promotion[1]

In accordance with these 9 domains, Bhutan has developed 38 sub-indexes, 72 indicators and 151 variables that are used to define and analyse the happiness of the Bhutanese people.

Another attempt has been made to quantify happiness on a national scale through the Happy Planet Index. The HPI consists of four elements measuring how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives[2]: wellbeing, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and ecological footprint. The data collected in order to make a correct calculation is from a variety of sources, such as the Gallup World Poll, the United Nations, and the Global Footprint Network.

The abundance of measurements of happiness, as alternatives to GDP, is down to a critical failing of GDP as a measure of ‘total wealth’: many of the aspects which make the number increase are negative externalities and contribute to a lower quality of life for the citizens in that society.

There has been a great deal of further research into quantifying standards of living, or ‘happiness’, in a holistic fashion: this research varies substantially when conducted from a micro perspective, as opposed to taking a macro perspective towards quantifying this subjective concept. In next week’s article I will be discussing these other attempts.

Header Image: Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash


[1]Info extracted from http://www.gnhcentrebhutan.org/what-is-gnh/the-9-domains-of-gnh/

[2] Info extracted from http://happyplanetindex.org/about/#how

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