Saturday, January 16, 2016

What's Gross about Happiness?

Laura's chalk happiness excursions
This is the first of twelve posts for 2016 that explain the work of the Happiness Alliance, the Gross National Happiness Index and the Happiness Movement.  I am writing these posts from my own perspective of having been in the happiness movement since 2010.  At the end of the year, all of these posts will be collected and issued as a book.

This is the first post and it explains the Gross National Happiness Index. Each post is meant to inspire you towards your own happiness and to participate in the happiness movement.  Thanks for reading! Laura Musikanski, executive director of the Happiness Alliance

Gross National Happiness is an index. It's a philosophy. It's emblematic of a paradigm shift to an economic system based on sustainability, love and well-being for all. And it's more. Since 2010, it has been the portal that has changed people's lives. It has transformed communities and guided countries.

Let me tell you two stories to illustrate this point.

A Personal View on Gross National Happiness

In 2011, when we first issued the Gross National Happiness index survey in North America, a woman took the survey.  She worked for a not-for-profit doing environmental work in California. Her job was to measure the impact of the nonprofits various projects and report it.  By her own definition, she was a data-junky.

Her survey scores looked like this:
Gross National Happiness Scores 
Notice anything about the scores?  Being a data junky, she realized this immediately. Before you read on, see if you can see it.

She scored higher than all other survey takers on pretty much every domain of happiness except satisfaction with life.

It's important to understand that she knew that her scores were her own self-assessment of her well-being. Nobody was dictating to her that she was better or worse off than others. Nobody was observing her and telling her that her health was good or her financial future was rosy.  She had determined her own scores by answering the questions in the survey.

This is what she realized:  Her life was as good as it gets. Any unhappiness or dissatisfaction that she felt was not because of anything external in her life. She realized with a finality she had not felt before the truth that nobody and nothing could make her happy. She did not need to change anything in her life. She did not need a new job. She loved her job. She did not need to move. Her neighborhood was great. She did not need a different family, to lose weight, get more stuff, or have more friends. Her life was really good.  It was up to her if she wanted to feel better about her life.

She decided to take up a daily gratitude practice.  Everyday she wrote down three things she was grateful for.  Within a few months, she found that thanking the people in her life who did little things, like the teller at the grocery store and the front dest person at work, came more naturally and frequently. She also found herself admiring her husband and little boy more frequently. At first they were a little surprised when she would praise them unexpectedly. They happily got used to it.

She decided to start a daily mindfulness practice. Every day she sat for at least five minutes and just watched her mind think, or observe the inhale and exhale of her breath. Sometimes she missed a day, or a few, but would take the practice back up when she remembered, without chastising herself. After one year, she took the Gross National Happiness Index again. There was one noticeable change in her scores. Her satisfaction with life scores went up. In a conversation with her, she told me that she felt, indeed, happier.

That's a story about how the Gross National Happiness index has made a person happier. Here is a story about how it has had a transformative effect at a national scale.

Gross National Happiness at a National Scale

Bhutan, source of Gross National Happiness
In 2008 Bhutan (a country in the Himalayas about the size of Switzerland) used its Gross National Happiness index to measure the well-being of its population.  Forty years earlier the King of Bhutan had coined the term "Gross National Happiness" when queried about his country's economic future. Bhutan's Gross National Happiness scores were used to inform laws, policy and programs for the nation. A Gross National Happiness Commission was convened to help draft, aid the parliament in promulgating, and then implement happiness policies. The United Nations took notice.  So did many policy makers, media, and others.

In 2009, a year later, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, let the world know about a report he had commissioned, popularly called the Stiglitz report. It is called the Stiglitz report because Joseph Stiglitz, a nobel prize winner in economics lead the project, along with Amartya Sen, another nobel prize winner in economics, who wrote Development as Freedom, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, a French jewish Tunisian-born economist  (I also am a French citizen, jewish and Tunisian born, but not an economist. Funny, the little coincidences in life.) lead its creation.  Sarkozy urged all presidents of countries across the globe to adopt wider measures of well-being in lieu of Gross Domestic Product.

The Stiglitz report said that countries needed to use wider measures of societal well-being and environmental sustainability to guide policy. It said that the current measure governments use were prone to giving policymakers a distorted view and exacerbating growing income inequality, among other things.  Since then, the United Kingdom followed Bhutan in measuring the happiness of their people and using the data for public policy, the European Commission created a brain trust that culminated in a report called the BRAINPOoL Report, and forty countries around the world started the process of measuring happiness at a national level.  These two events may someday be seen as signs of the trimtabs that changed the course of events for our planet. I hope so.

Trimtabs are the rudders on the rudder of a ship or airplane that determine the long range direction of the vessel. The Gross National Happiness Index is a trimtab.

The Gross in Gross National Happiness

So what is the Gross National Happiness Index and what's so Gross about happiness?

Oxford Dictionary defines "gross" as: (1) (especially of a wrongdoing) very obvious and blatant and (2) (Of income, profit, or interest) without deduction of tax or other contributions. Webster's defines it as (1) (a) immediately obvious, (2)(a) big and bulky; 2 (b) growing and spreading with excessive luxuriance and (3) (b) consisting of an overall total exclusion of deductions.  We are going to go with Oxford's second and Webster's third definition of gross, but will keep in mind the preceding definitions.

The Gross National Happiness index gets its name from the term "Gross National Product." Today, people say "Gross Domestic Product," so let's use that term. Gross Domestic Product is the sum of all
goods and services a country produces in a year. If you measured the Gross Domestic Product for your household, you would include all the money you and all the people in your home earned at work, all gains from investments, any money you got from selling stuff on e-bay, at a garage sale or to somebody (like if you sold your car), and money you won or were awarded, like for a law suit. Essentially all the money that came into your household.

For a country, you can calculate Gross Domestic Product by adding up all the money spent, or all the money earned. In either case, you will include the money earned or spent on everything ranging from computers to environmental restoration, from hospital bills to lawyers, from guns to prisons.  It counts things that matter to us and counts things that hurt us. It misses anything that you do not get money for, such as parenting your child, family time, a day off, sleep, a hike in the mountains, an act of kindness to a stranger. This is why Bobby Kennedy said that Gross Domestic Product "can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."  Today, we could say the same thing about every other country (except Bhutan and, to a degree, the United Kingdom) because today every government is using Gross Domestic Product as the main measure to guide governments.

This is where we circle back in the first definitions of gross.  Remember them? Gross is (1) (especially of a wrongdoing) very obvious and blatant (Oxford), (2) (a) big and bulky; 2 (b) growing and spreading with excessive luxuriance (Webster).

It turns out that when we talk about Gross Domestic Product, it is gross. Even the creator of Gross Domestic Product, Simon Kuznets, thought so. When he introduced it to the U.S. Congress in 1934, he cautioned our elected officials that "The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income."  We did not heed. Instead we built our nation, and then other nations built their nations on the singular objective of increasing Gross Domestic Product. Coming out of the depression in 1934, we figured a little money is a good thing, so a lot of money would be a better thing. Turns out, not so.

Can't Buy You Love

Money does not bring happiness once you recover from a depression.  It does bring a lot other things, though.  Inequality. Environmental degradation. Discontent with a simple life.  We have all of those in oodles now. As our Gross Domestic Product increases, we will likely have more and more of it. This is because Gross Domestic Product does not catch inequalities, injustices or the side effects (economists call it externalities) of everything money can buy.  Nonetheless, we keep using Gross Domestic Product.

But now we have Gross National Happiness.  Gross National Happiness is a measure that counts the things Gross Domestic Product leaves behind. It accounts for income, and includes many other areas and activities of our lives and our country.  Gross National Happiness measures:
  • Satisfaction with life (how you feel and if this life is worthwhile)
  • Economy
    Gross National Happiness 
  • Work
  • Time Balance
  • Environment
  • Health 
  • Government   
  • Community 
  • Social Support
  • Learning
  • Culture
  • Psychological Well-being.

It asks you questions like "Do you feel a strong sense of community?" and "Are you able to make ends meet?" It accounts for whether you feel your environment is healthy or toxic and if the bottom fell out from your life, you would have a place to turn.

So what is so gross about that? Well, by name and origin, it is a proposed alternative to Gross Domestic Product.

The Gross is Gross Domestic Product

Past and Projected Gross Domestic Product from
Today our country's Gross Domestic Product is huge, at just over 17 trillion dollars. It's "big and bulky" and "growing and spreading with excessive luxuriance." By 2020, it is expected to go up to over 22 trillion.

Good news?

Very likely not.  Remember, money does not buy you happiness once you have recovered from economic hard times.

Imagine Gross Happiness

Imagine our government used Gross National Happiness as its guide. Imagine we held our health in
the same esteem as our bank accounts. Imagine that how we defined ourselves as community members - volunteering, participating in sports, arts or governance - was as valued as our career success. Imagine you spent as much time with your family and friends as you wish you could and your boss worked with you to ensure this happened.

Imagine companies were invested in because of how well they performed in the community and for the workforce, as well as their financial output.

Imagine if policy maker vied for ways to increase the happiness, well-being and sustainability of our nation in as many of the domains of happiness as they could.

What if our happiness were big and bulky? What if it were obvious that you were happy? What if happiness was growing and spreading at a national and individual level?

There are some real examples of how happiness policy spreads happiness, well-being and sustainability. In Denmark, often cited as one of the happiest countries in the world because of its scores in the Gallup World Poll, policy makers hold annual political festivals that are open to all. People come and listen to the people who want to be elected and the incumbents speak for one day, and then for the subsequent days, can meet with them for discussion at booths or in meetings. Imagine if our city and county elections in the U.S. were precipitated by a political festival.  In Costa Rica, often cited as the happiest country on the planet because of its scores on the Happy Planet Index, the forest covers 52% of the land, with a goal for 70% and a carbon-neutral country by 2020. The policies implemented to get there were drastic and daring. The army was disbanded and funds were channeled into efforts to restore forest cover, which had dwindled to 25%, and into social programs including schools, jobs and social security.  Imagine if the world powers were to do that.

There are other examples of happiness guiding government that are bite sized. In the United Kingdom, where scores showed high-school aged kids were not so happy, summer programs were implemented to match youth up to community building projects in their borough or town. In Victoria, British Columbia, a section of downtown was smattered with "8 smiles per zone" signs to encourage people to smile at least eight times an hour. In the state of Vermont, policy makers and not-for-profit leaders were treated to a weekend seminar to learn what accountability to happiness data meant, and then invited to join a data collaboratory.

Measurements Matter

I mentioned earlier that the Gross National Happiness Index is a trimtab. You may be wondering what the heck that means. It has to do with the power of measurements. Have you ever heard the sayings "what you measure matters," "you get what you measure" or "what you measure is what you get"?  There is more truth than one might expect in these adages.

If you watched the movie Happy, at about 28 minutes in, you saw my friend Tim Kasser explain.
Tim Kasser in the movie Happy.
He talked about values, goals and metrics.  Metrics have a direct causal relationship to our goals. If we measure money, our goals are to make more money. If we measure happiness, our goals are to become happier. Tim's research tells us that measuring gross domestic product means we set our goals for money, image and status. These are extrinsic goals. Even if we achieve them, they do not make us happy.  But if we set our goals for personal growth (really being you), personal relationships (deeply connecting with your friends and loved ones), and helping the world to be a better place, we are happier.  And, when governments use measurements, they are telling people what is important, and what to value. If governments use happiness and well-being measurements, then people value sustainability, wellbeing and happiness for themselves and others. In other words, what you measure, matters.

So, right now, we live in a world where our society tells us that money, wealth, status and image are more important than making the world a better place, loving and being yourself. You probably feel this in your everyday life. Have you ever apologized for doing volunteer work or for being different? Have you ever felt too embarrassed to express your feelings?  Do you feel like you do not have the choice to do what you really want to do in life?  The truth is that for most people, if they did the work they felt called to do, they may not earn enough of a living For many of us, if we fully expressed our feelings (in a healthy way), we may be ostracized by family and colleagues. And for most of us, there just is not enough time in a day to spend as much time as we would like with our friends and loved ones.

So what can you do right now, in a world where money matters and being truly you, giving to others, acting out your crazy self, and taking care of the planet is frowned down upon? Take little bites. The time that you do have with your loved ones, try to be fully present. Bring your focus back on them each time it strays. If you have time with a niece, nephew, child or grandchild and find yourself on your cell phone, don't chastise yourself, but put it down, and join your loved one in what they are doing. If they are playing a video game, don't demand they stop - join them or ask to watch and participate in a non-judgemental way (praise is always good -seek things to praise about what they are doing).  If you wish you could do more to save the planet, love that you are the kind of person that feels this way. Look back over the last year and find all the things you did right. Think on how you have been a good person.

You can make a difference. Let's live in a nation where happiness, well-being and sustainability matter at least as much as money. You can be a part of the happiness movement by bringing the message of the happiness movement into your home, your community and your life.

Stay tuned to learn more about the happiness movement and visit our website at to find tons of information and resources.

And if you are inspired, take the Gross National Happiness index survey and use it in your community.

Posted with love, Laura Musikanski