Should Nations Measure Happiness?

Economists and development experts met at the United Nations in New York this week to discuss whether measuring and improving happiness is just as important as measuring and improving gross national product.

The Kingdom of Bhutan has taken a leading role to help define the concept of “Gross National Happiness.” In fact, using metrics such as divorce rates, level of crime, infant mortality rate, and equality, Bhutan has applied a measurement of GNH in its own budgeting for the last several decades.

44 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy expressed a similar desire when he said,

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

~Robert F. Kennedy Address, University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

What do you think of the concept of measuring the happiness of a nation? Do you think it’s a “fluffy” concept? Do you think it will add value to the citizens of a nation? Does it constitute a valid metric of measuring progress? And if nations do measure happiness, do you believe it should also be measured at the family level? Should parents take kids to the doctor to have their happiness measured? We’d love to know your thoughts. Join the discussion below!

10 thoughts on “Should Nations Measure Happiness?”

  1. I remember reading an article regarding this topic not too long ago. Then I remember having a discussion with a good friend who had parents in Iceland during the massive bank run not too long ago. He told me how everyone pulled together and recreated a new constitution on-line and the citizens all voted equally without any external lobbying pressure or crony capitalism at play. Prior to this Iceland was I believe voted by the UN as the best place in the world to live and prosper due to social, economic and political factors. So much can change, yet the crux of what makes a country great is it’s smallest parts, which also happen to be it’s greatest numbers and asset. I am talking about the people. I think Kennedy was addressing that demographic with his speech. I think it is quantifiable and can be measured. In a sense, it is more changing as the needs of the population will shift and alter the outcome. Still I think something so important should be measured as it can be a great source of pride for everyone. Imagine the people of Iceland when the UN voted them 10 years in a row with such a distinction.

    • Good point Amar. I was also familiar with the former collapse of Iceland’s economy. There is a great documentary which covers the story in abundant detail. For anyone interested, I highly recommend viewing it. Here is the You Tube link:

      Consider the collapse of Argentina’s economy as well. Similar situation and then of course, there is the global economic malaise today. As far as the happiness measurement is considered, I think it is also viable to a certain extent. Amar is correct as this kind of measurement is rapidly changing. Look at a first world country like the USA slowly slipping into third world status for many of the middle class. We have the top 10% controlling and owning more then the bottom 90%, then in China whose standard of living is increasing exponentially like it’s economy, they are moving rapidly to first world status. Developing BRIC countries will see a rise while former first world will decline. So, yes these studies are important and effect families on the local level all the way to the elected official’s who must answer to our concerns.

      • Lately the economic news is extremely depressing and I find the statistics and facts daunting to ignore, even for the naysayers in our lives.

        • I can relate and in fact, I tend to ignore it all the same. Not the best option but call it mental defense or more, emotional…

          • LOL! I thought I was the only one who purposely applied this reasoning. Mental defense, I like the term.

  2. I can see you guys are focusing on the recent world events related to the economy and how this impacts the life quality of everyone. I agree but I like to think in a narrow perspective for balance. I would like to address the issue of what I think Kennedy was concerned with in his speech. It is tangible things that effect everyday people. Not just materialism and wealth acquisition or being able to buy our way through life. I mean yes, comfort and having the trappings of a luxurious life are essential but what is more important is the things we easily overlook. Sometimes these are not easily measured by standard statistics. How about a child’s smile or laughter or the moral compass of of our elected officials and who really serves the people as opposed to the corporations. How about a teacher’s dedication to students despite salary issues. Doctor’s who care about patients despite insurance threats due to malpractice issues. How do we measure thing’s such as community spirit and people caring above greed and individual concerns.

  3. I know you all agree on it overall merit, but I am more inclined to go the other route and to concentrate more on what we each can achieve in our own lives as a true measure of happiness. It doesn’t make sense for everyone to look for some external measurement when all we need to do to look for happiness is within ourselves. Don’t like something? Change it! Our lives as individuals are within our realm of possibility to change. If everyone did this then the country from bottom up would reflect this newfound happiness. Doesn’t that make more sense then trying to measure it as some mass quantifiable, numerical scientific factor? I can change the world but I can change my life. Multiply this by the population and in some sense we have a very happy population where location is just another factor that is interchangeable. Make sense?

    • WOW, you said it perfectly and you are so correct! I could not agree more or restate what you have said any better. I agree, this is the key. I think all this external focus on something so large and to difficult to measure precisely is somewhat misleading the public, It is like a distraction from the things we can easily control and relate to like our families, relationships, children and immediate communities. I think the change is easier to implement on a local level and then have it spread outward through example. No need to force some crazy universal guide on how every human being in every continent and country should live and by what or whose standard of happiness.

  4. You know I was thinking – how would I measure the happiness of my kids? They seem pretty okay…they’re not in trouble, they get decent grades. And who is someone else (especially the government) to impose “standards” of happiness upon my family? Then my wife said, well, they impose standards of sadness on us. There are socially accepted standards of depression. Hmm…made me think.


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