Three Key Indicators: Gross Domestic Product, Life Satisfaction (‟Gross National Happiness”), and Environmental Quality

By Matthieu Ricard on October 24, 2010

Initially intended as a means to manage the 1929 economic crisis, The GDP can be used to measure only one aspect of the quality of life. The combined scientific, technological, and industrial revolution, which has grown since the 19th century, has led to an improvement of living conditions (a considerable increase in life expectancy, improved health, better access to education, greater social justice, progress toward the equality between men and women, etc.). However, at present, a significant number of the factors linked to the growth caused by this expansion have deleterious effects on the quality of life and on the environment. For the first time in the history of humanity, it would even seem that human activity could soon have a harmful and irreversible impact on our ecosystem.

Therefore, it is important to introduce new criteria that will allow us to assess the prosperity of nations. No state wishes to feel that its prosperity is in decline. Today, any fall in economic growth is perceived as a sign of failure. On the other hand, if the wealth of a nation were measured according to a combination of the GDP, life satisfaction (or the GNH, ‟Gross National Happiness”) and environmental quality, then both leaders and citizens could rejoice in a yearly increase of the latter two indicators, even if there should be a slight decrease in the GDP.

As Pr. Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics, states, ‟We have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nice work and, above all, better health. Yet we are not happier… If we want people to be happier, we really have to know what conditions generate happiness and how to cultivate them.” (from Happiness: Lessons from a New Science)

We cannot expect the quality of life to simply be a by-product of economic growth, since the criteria for these two are different. The gross national happiness—which seeks to lessen suffering and increase well-being—must be evaluated on its own terms and pursued for its own sake. There is a corresponding science, one that studies the life satisfaction in individuals, as much in the moment itself as in the long run, and that correlates their level of satisfaction with various other extrinsic factors (financial resources, social rank, education, degree of freedom, level of violence in society, political situation) and intrinsic factors (the search for hedonistic or eudaemonic happiness, optimism or pessimism, egocentrism or altruism, etc.). The beneficial effects of a given policy should therefore be evaluated by taking into consideration the consequences it has on life satisfaction as well as its repercussions on the environment.