Money Can't Buy Happiness, So We Should Rank Countries By Both

When someone asks, "how is a country doing?" The first idea that comes to mind is the economy, with all the numbers and indices that come with it. Gross domestic product, the most famous of them all, had long been a measure of the well being of a nation. But allow me to introduce an inevitable philosophical question that arises in this context:  Does the wellness of people depend on their paycheck? Isn’t wellness, to some extent, correlated with happiness? And if it is, how can we quantify something so uncountable as happiness? 

Based on a recent U.N. resolution that said GDP does not "adequately reflect people's well-being," the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development has called for a broader index than GDP that would include environmental and social impacts. One model that has been discussed is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index used by Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan state in South Asia. The term "gross national happiness" was coined by Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, to show his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Although it started out as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously, and the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population's general level of well-being. The idea behind the happiness index is that development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development complement each other instead of one growing at the expense of the other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

This initiative has been criticized and said to be simply "silly" by many. But come to think of it, isn't the overarching goal of a nation to make its residents happy? The trend for measuring happiness has not only taken root, but also spread, as the U.S. has now begun developing its own happiness index (which is expected to become an official statistic by 2014).

But what would the standard be? Are statisticians going to go out and simply ask people how they feel about their lives? The credibility of such an attempt is questionable, which is why the idea of measuring happiness sparks a lot of controversy. Critics say we're better off finding a new way to measure income distribution rather than trying to measure something we cannot even define.

But happiness polls were eventually carried out. Where do you think the happiest people on Earth were? Of 156 countries, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands and Canada are the happiest, according to the Gallup World Poll that asked people to rate the quality of their lives on a 0 (worst possible) to 10 (best possible) scale. The U.S. ranked 11th highest.

Ultimately, the compromise in this debate would be to measure the "quality of life." It is not a fully abstract notion such as happiness, nor is it a strictly monetary indicator such as GDP. Things like political freedom, social support, job security, health, stable families, and so on would also be taken into account when trying to identify wellbeing.

So money can’t buy happiness. But like the renowned author and speaker Rita Davenport said: "Money isn't everything ... but it ranks right up there with oxygen."