Gross National Happiness or Have You Seen a Cow?

Today was the first day of the first week of orientation for my master’s program (MPA-DP) at Columbia. The day concluded with an interesting lecture (the first Development Practitioner Seminar) from Dr. Saamdu Chetri, the director of Bhutan’s Happiness Center. His lecture was on Gross National Happiness (GNH). Every two years the country of Bhutan conducts a survey to determine the level of “happiness” in the country. The idea is based on the fact that GDP is an inadequate indicator to judge the wellbeing of a society. In fact, the traditional concept of “growth,” Dr. Chetri explained, may be incompatible with long-term economic sustainability.

At the end of the lecture, we were given the opportunity to ask questions. My question: Since the index is based mostly on answers to subjective questions in an interview setting, how do you ensure that social pressure to be happy (or at least say you’re happy) doesn’t artificially inflate the level of “measured” happiness. That’s not how I phrased it (I wish I’d phrased it better), but that was the basic idea.

Dr. Chetri’s response was that the questions are designed in a way to make it very difficult to intentionally sabotage the results. Instead of just asking if you’re happy, the interviewer would ask a variety of questions on numerous subjects from which they could infer the person’s level of happiness. For instance, the interviewer would ask something like: “Do you know what a cow looks like?” The assumption being that if you don’t know what a cow looks like you are less connected to nature and therefore less happy.

The GNH is based on four pillars of happiness, which are good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. Economic development is important to achieving happiness and equity in society, but it should not come at the cost of the other three pillars. For example, while cleaning up an oil spill may create jobs and contribute to GDP, it has a negative impact on overall happiness because oil spills are devastating to the environment.

Central to GNH is the idea of sustainability, which will also be a key component of the Sustainable Development Goals (the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, which will sunset in 2015).

P.S. I went on an evening ride in Central Park today. Going fast is scary with so many people around.

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