Is Gross National Happiness the new GDP?

By Martha Sambe via Stears


Belatedly, happiness has become an important measure of welfare. The key feature that makes happiness a good gauge for welfare is that it considers non-income factors. This is unlike Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which we use as a measure of national income and output, but also as a yardstick for welfare. But even Simon Kuznets, the man credited with developing the modern idea of GDP, was sceptical about how much we could infer from it when judging human welfare. 

Still, income plays a role. Evidence over time suggests that richer people are, on average, happier than poorer ones. But when does this relationship hold? Or where? Does that make poor people unhappy? And how exactly do we measure happiness?


GNH is the Future...

...Or the prevailing order of the day, if you live in Bhutan. The term Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the brainchild of the King of Bhutan who in the 70's realised that a high GDP did not necessarily translate to development or happiness for his people. The King believed that happiness was a more direct indicator of the state of society. Put simply, the GNH is a measure of welfare and national progress that gives similar importance to economic and non-economic factors. 

Like GDP, GNH is a composite number. However, it takes into consideration a broader set of values from different sectors of the society; including health, education, governance, cultural diversity, psychological wellbeing, etc.

As for Bhutan, subsequent research into happiness brought out some interesting results. Bhutan men are on average happier than women; unmarried and young people are some of the happiest; and unemployed people are happier than corporate employees, housewives and farmers, etc.

Would this be true in Nigeria?


Measuring Happiness

The happiness approach to measuring welfare is a broad one, and as we've seen with Bhutan, it does not rely solely on income based factors to deduce information about human wellbeing. In addition to being broad, it is also subjective; this means that researchers depend on individuals' assessments of their lives in order to draw any conclusions about their welfare.

This is perhaps the most interesting – and contentious – aspect of the happiness measure. As this researcher puts it, the happiness approach relies on "expressed preferences" rather than "revealed choices". What that means is, rather than observing actual behaviour and drawing conclusions (revealed choices), the happiness approach allows for direct interaction with individuals where they can express their preferences.

So happiness is a broader measure of welfare but is it a better one? We are finding out. The fact that the happiness approach is subjective poses a problem. Can we, and should we, trust people's judgments/assessments of their lives? Take the typical Nigerian for whom everything "is well by God's grace". How do we account for such bias? Also, there is the issue of adaptation; human beings can adapt to nearly every situation they find themselves, good or bad. Nigerians may scoff at the suggestion, but it has been found across cultures. 

So you find people who report being unhappy even though they live in good conditions and those who are quite happy living in poor conditions. Just look at how we tolerate situations that would look unacceptable for those watching from the outside. There is also the issue of cross-cultural differences which manifests in the translation of terms used to denote happiness when collecting answers.

So the controversy is simple: should we believe what people say about themselves, especially if their actions and circumstances suggest otherwise?


The Easterlin Paradox, Cultural Traits & The Case of Nigeria

The Easterlin Paradox is the seminal result in happiness research. Richard Easterlin found that on average, within a country, the rich are happier than the poor, whereas, across countries, rich countries are not happier than poor ones. It turns out that maybe happiness rises with average income but only to a certain point – beyond that, there is no link. Pursuing economic growth makes sense, but not if what you really care about is happiness.

This means that rich countries can get richer, but after a point, they aren't getting any happier. For Nigeria, there is no clear relationship between income and happiness. The country scores highly in terms of life satisfaction (surprisingly?) even with a per capita income just above $1000.

Even though Nigeria currently ranks 103 out of 157 countries (see: World Happiness Report), we are, or used to be, known for being some of the happiest people in the world. This is an excellent example of the challenge of adaptability that the happiness approach faces. The question then is: can the happiness approach (GNH) accurately measure welfare in a society that is as deeply religious and cultural as Nigeria?

The happiness of Nigerians is a testament to the will of the human spirit to survive regardless of the odds stacked against it. While strength of will is a great trait, it is both Nigeria's blessing and its curse. On the one hand, we can endure any situation (and come out not necessarily unscathed), on the other, we adapt and become desensitised to situations that call for resistance. This is not to say that we are not a genuinely happy people, but again, how happy can one really be in a country like Nigeria?