John Edward teaches economics at Bentley and UMass Lowell. He’s a frequent contributor of columns on economic issues.
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.
Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
A few months ago I wrote a column titled Good News, Bad News. It used headlines to discuss key economic statistics such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The good news is that Real GDP grew at a 4.2 percent annual rate last quarter. The Real part means the Bureau of Economic Analysis has adjusted for inflation. As measured by Real GDP, we are now producing over 4 times as much as we did 50 years ago. Adjusting for population size, our economy has grown by 2.5 times since 1964.
The bad news is that while we are producing a lot more stuff, there has been a lot of bad stuff going on. GDP is by no means perfect, but it does a reasonable job of measuring standard of living. What we need is more focus on quality of life. Are we happy?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about forty thousand people commit suicide in the United States every year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. As reported in The New York Times: “Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade.”
According to the Department of Defense, as of August 22nd, 6,750 United States military personnel have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also reported in The New York Times: many of the deaths are because a “Baffling Rise in Suicides Plagues US Military.” In 2012, the suicide rate in the military exceeded the rate of combat deaths and was about twice the civilian suicide rate.
The most recent data from the CDC counts over sixteen thousand homicides in the United States in one year. The U.S. homicide rate is much higher than in European Union countries with standards of living comparable to ours. As reported in The Washington Post: “The U.S. has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country.”
With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has about 4.5 percent of the world’s total population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. As reported in The New York Times, the “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations.”
One out of 12 people in the United States age twelve or older have substance dependence or abuse problems. As reported in The Washington Post: “100 Americans die of drug overdoses each day.” According to the United Nations World Drug Report, illegal drug use in the U.S. is well above rates in European countries. Although drug use among teens has decreased in the last ten years, people thirty years or older are using drugs at a significantly higher rate.
As I discussed in a previous column , despite spending twice as much as any other country on health care, the United States has high rates of obesity, diabetes, and infant mortality. According to the United Nations, 34 countries have a “healthy life expectancy” longer than ours.
The good news is 28 percent of responders to a Pew Research poll conducted this year agreed the United States “stands above all other countries in the world.” The bad news is that is down from 38 percent just three years ago.
In 2013, the United Nations sponsored the World Happiness Report. It ranked countries by happiness based on polls. The United States ranked 17th out of 156 countries. However, we had one of the largest drops in happiness from results five years earlier. Of the 16 countries ranked happier than us, only one had a higher per-capita income and most have standards of living well below ours.
Despite very low favorability ratings, our government is great at collecting statistics, like Gross Domestic Product. I would favor the government doing something like what they started doing in the tiny country of Bhutan about a decade ago. Bhutan developed the Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicator. As described on their web site:
GNH is a holistic and sustainable approach to development which balances between material and non-material values with the conviction that humans want to search for happiness. The objective of GNH is to achieve a balanced development in all facets of life which is essential to our happiness. The goal of GNH is happiness. One of several means to achieve this goal is sustainable economic growth.
The GNH is derived using survey data that measures performance on 9 domains: psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standard, health, education, and good governance. Most importantly and directly related to good governance, the results actually drive policy decisions. That may help explain why a country with a very low standard of living can report that 55 percent of the population report their quality of life as being good or very good.
Other alternatives to GDP include measuring “Green GDP” as promoted by the World Bank. The Center for Sustainable Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies created the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). They base GPI on 26 indicators “From the costs of crime, pollution, commuting and inequality to the value of education, volunteer work, leisure time and infrastructure.” The New Economics Foundation created a Happy Planet Index (HPI) which “measures what matters: the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.” Based on the HPI, we rank 105 out of 151 countries.
In software engineering there is an expression: you cannot fix what you do not measure. We need to start measuring our quality of life, not just standard of living.
Next time you contact your elected representatives to tell them you are unhappy, tell them the government needs to measure happiness. Only then can we fix the right problems.
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.
Pharrell Williams, Happy
If you want to learn more about measuring happiness, check out these web sites: