Friday, July 06, 2007

Gross National Happiness

According to an article in today's Le Figaro, the Gross National Product is now outdated as a measure of a nation's prosperity. Since the GNP fails to take into account environmental progress and sustainable development, as well as the basic health and happiness of a population, economists are now considering other measurements when evaluating a country's progress.

One of these new measurements is the Gross National Happiness Index, a figure based on a population's answer to the question "to what extent are you happy with your life?" Individual answers, a number on a scale from one to ten, are averaged to give an overall score for the country. A nation can also be evaluated by the difference in score given by its richest and poorest citizens.

Out of the 95 countries surveyed, Denmark's overall score was the highest at 8.2, and Tanzania came in last at 3.2. More interesting to me are the relative scores of the two countries dear to my heart, the US, in 17th place with a score of 7.4, and France, which trails in 39th position with a score of 6.5.

I grant you that I am not an impartial observer, and if I didn't consider my Personal Happiness Index higher in France, I wouldn't still be living here happily after almost four years. I feel, however, that as well-intentioned and innovative as this new measurement is, it forgets that different cultures have very different approaches to answering surveys. The French are notorious complainers, and what's more, are used to the grading policy of an educational system which considers a 14 or 15 out of twenty perfectly acceptable, even exceptional. In contrast, Americans are natural optimists, and given to grade inflation. In the American educational system, a B grade is considered average and a C substandard.

Is my theory correct? Who knows, but I'm convinced that an entirely subjective rating alone, especially one based on a single question, cannot be sufficient. I think that the concept of a happiness index is interesting, but why not factor in objective criteria, like access to high-quality health care and education, or the likelihood of economic advancement from one generation to the next? Not only would the rating be easier to understand, but it would point clearly to areas for improvement.

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