There's More to Happiness Than GDP & There's a New Report to Prove It

© Columbia University

The Rio+20 environmental conference is just about two months away now and the UN is making a push on a theme that is likely to rise to prominence in Brazil: The critical need to move beyond GDP as the primary measurement of societal success and the near cultish goal of nations large and small.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said :

Gross Domestic Production has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress.

We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.

TreeHugger will delve into this a bit more in the coming days—check out 5 greener alternatives to GDP if I've already lost you with the 'cultish goal' and 'gross global happiness' part—but let's start by taking a quick glance at the just-released World Happiness Report [PDF].

Produced by the Earth Institute at Columbia University for the United Nations Conference on Happiness, the report makes a strong case that there's far more that goes into nations being happy than just more and more stuff—represented crudely at best by GDP.

To be fair, this is the far from first report making this connection. For years we've had research showing that, once the basic needs of housing, adequate food and clothing, plus a modicum of recreation, are met that more income sharply breaks from increased happiness and life satisfaction. And that many people in the world's rich nations pass that mark pretty early in the year.

Before we get the findings, let's slightly detour to answer the basic question of why we really need to, in the report's words, rethink "the keys to happiness." The report says, accurately I think:

The western economist's logic of ever higher GNP [ed. note: gross national product, a slightly different calculation from GDP, but for this purpose identical] is built on a vision of humanity completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages, the research of psychologists, and the practices of advertisers. The economist assumes that individuals are rational decision-makers who know what they want and how to get it, or to get as close to it as possible given their budget. Individuals care largely about what themselves and derive pleasure mainly through their consumption. [...] We increasingly understand that we need a very different model of humanity, one in which we are a complicated interplay of emotion and rational thought, unconscious and conscious decision-making, "fast" and "slow" thinking. [...] We also understand that we are social animals through and through...We feel the pain of others, and react viscerally when others are sad or injured...All of this gives us a remarkable capacity to cooperate even with strangers, and even when there is little change of reward or reciprocity.

The report goes on like that for a while, and it's worth taking a long look at in its entirety. However for those with less time on their hands than is required to go through its 150+ pages, here's the bullet-pointed version, via Columbia University.

  • Happier countries tend to be richer countries. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.
  • Over time as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (like for example, the United States). On average, the world has become a little happier in the last 30 years (by 0.14 times the standard deviation of happiness around the world).
  • Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.
  • Behaving well makes people happier.
  • Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.
  • Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children.
  • In advanced countries, women are happier than men, while the position in poorer countries is mixed.
  • Happiness is lowest in middle age.

And the rankings: The happiest nations are Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands, all with rankings in the 7.6 out of 10 range. The least happy nations score just around 3.4 out of 10: Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone.

Tags: Economics | United Nations