Thank you to Christopher Barrington-Leigh and GTI for a stimulating discussion. I tend to think that “happiness” may not be the best substitute for GDP (despite the excellent work of Martin Seligman and others to describe individual well-being through what has become known as positive psychology and the PERMA model, which assesses positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments as indicators of individual well-being).
That said, the construct of well-being does seem to have some potential power beyond that of happiness, because it can have both subjective and more objective elements. I do think we need measures and metrics that attempt to get at well-being as opposed to (financial) wealth to assess how our societies (and their people) are doing. That, of course, means carefully defining and somehow quantifying well-being in ways that go beyond (subjective) “happiness.” The happiness project in some ways seems to be founded on upper-middle-class tastes, although the Gross National Happiness Indicator comes out of Bhutan. More to the point, “happiness” as discussed here seems to be a very developed world construct that does not necessarily take into account the (often jobless) situation of many people in developing and emerging nations.
Meaningful work is vitally important as Christopher Barrington-Leigh points out; however, what do we do about the many millions of people who are seeking the basics of what the ILO calls “decent work” and for whom even finding (unmeaningful) work is problematic?
GDP has been known to be flawed since its introduction, as it only measures economic activity, whether that activity is for good or for ill with respect to well-being. In recent years, there have been numerous efforts to develop alternative metrics. Three well-being-oriented indicators that already exist and go well beyond subjective happiness are the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Better Life Index, and the Gross National Happiness Indicator.
Redefining Progress’s Genuine Progress Indicator attempts to measure “what really matters to people—health care, safety, a clean environment, and other indicators of well-being.” GPI starts with personal consumption data, then builds in (positively or negatively, depending on the indicator) measurements of income distribution; housework, volunteering, and higher education; crime; resource depletion; pollution; long-term environmental damage; changes in leisure time; defensive expenditures; lifespan of consumer durables and public infrastructure; and dependence on foreign assets.
The OECD’s Better Life Index builds on the work of the Commission on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (or the Sitglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission) and asks people to rank their nation on eleven indicators: housing (conditions and spending), income (household income and financial wealth), jobs (earnings, job security, unemployment), community (quality of social support network), education, environmental quality, governance (involvement in democracy), health, life satisfaction (happiness), safety, and work-life balance.
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Indicator takes a holistic approach towards ideas about programs, including equal weighting of non-economic aspects of well-being and sustainability. The index consists of 33 measures, and has four “pillars” (good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation) classified into nine domains: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.
Clearly, none of these indicators is perfect; however, they all do something to go beyond subjective identification of “happiness” in what are at least an attempt at culturally sensitive ways, and all attempt to at least complement what it is possible for GDP to do.