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The Economics Journal > Strategy > Gross National Happiness / Well-being (GNH / GNW) - A Policy White Paper

Economics Journal > Strategy > Happiness Economics >

The American Pursuit of Unhappiness
Policy White Paper
Gross National Happiness & Well-being Index
 GNH / GNW Index
New Socioeconomic Development Policy Framework

Happiness Consortium Paper Feb, 27, 2007 (EU Project)
Final Paper December 18, 2006
 (addition of statistics from NEF study)
Draft Policy White Paper V1.1 Jan 15, 2006
Working Paper V1.0 Jan 4, 2005


Executive Summary

The most important statement of the U.S. political philosophy is that of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It states:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Are current government policies making us happier or more stressed? 

This white paper provides an analysis of the mental and emotional health liabilities produced by the current socioeconomic system. It also proposes several policy reforms to help address these liabilities. The paper summarizes the study in three sections: 1. Statement of the problem; 2. Root cause analysis; 3. Recommendations.

Note: While this white paper is written for the United States government, the analysis and recommendations are applicable to many other countries.

1. Statement of the Problem:

Why choose happiness as a subject for economic research?

Mental and emotional well-being of citizens improves their performance and broadens the intellectual, physical and social resources of a nation. Our research has found that happy people have better health habits, lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and higher endurance levels. They cause less stress on the national healthcare system. Citizens with better emotional and mental health are easier to relate to and work with, tend to be better decision makers, are more creative, and outperform peers in problem-solving, innovation, persistence and productivity.

The current American socioeconomic system does not help the mental and emotional health of its citizens. According to the following independent research studies:

The University of Michigan's World Values Surveys (WVS) of 2004, ranks America at number 15 in population happiness.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) study of 2006, uncovered a different world order where USA ranks at the 150th place.

Regardless of what one thinks of various studies, and of their ranking criteria, when it comes to happiness and mental well-being, the world’s richest country (by GDP) does not make it into the top ten and further studies suggest that it’s getting worse.

Let's visit the first question again.

Are current government policies making us happier or more stressed?

  • How many Americans are taking antidepressants or using alcohol or other forms of addictions as a way to cope with the pressures of the current socioeconomic system? Is the number declining or on the rise?
  • How many people whose lifestyle is causing severe pressures on their psychological, emotional and relationship health?
  • How many people suffer from chronic workplace stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, or some form of depression?
  • Are the rates of social conflicts or sources of stress such as divorce, crime and lawsuits declining or on the rise?

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, the rates of depression across almost all demographic groups have risen in the United States over the past 10 years, with major depression rising from 3.33 percent of U.S. adults in 1991-1992 to 7.06 percent in 2001-2002: In other words, it has more than doubled. There are no available studies for 2005, but from our own research indicators, it appears that it is getting worse. Doctors are now prescribing antidepressants to children and adolescents more than ever. 

Depressed or not, if you live in America, you are probably burdened with more stress than previous generations (and other countries)

2. Root Cause Analysis

The ideologies and governments of this century that promised happiness, have left people with more material possessions, but less psychological well-being. Many in our society are emotionally bankrupt and unhappy. The demands of life in our current socioeconomic system require that we keep running and running with little or no breaks.

With increasing life costs, rising taxes, economic demands, and social and work pressures, far too many people are suffering from chronic stress, anxiety or anger. The term "rat race" applies more today than ever. Many people eventually experience this high-pressure lifestyle as burnout, exhaustion and/or depression. Many Americans are feeling unhappy at home and at work.

Our research shows that current studies under-report the number of people who suffer from frequent states of anxiety, depression, or stress. When asked, the surveyed subjects think that prolonged or frequent high-levels of social, work or economic stress are normal. Yet, they desire much more happiness in life. They simply, gave up on "happiness" and settled for "survival". But, it does not have to be this way.

To be objective, it is not entirely the fault of the government. More has changed in the last decade technologically, culturally, politically and economically than the entire past century. The degree and speed of change has posed enormous challenges for countries, organizations and their people.

We are all feeling the influence of these changes, whether it’s the global competition, social re-engineering, political and military conflicts, outsourcing or power shifts. Unprecedented globalization initiatives exert an enormous pressure on the psyche of the average individual and family. In many areas, those changes enriched people's lives, and in some areas, they robbed people of their lifetime investments, whether it’s a retirement account, career or a long-term relationship, and in some cases those changes literally stole their souls and their future. (Scientists: please forgive the use of such colorful words)

To make things even more complex, most of today’s young professionals are entering this changing world under-educated and under-equipped to manage their own lives. While fluent in science, business or arts, they lack critical-thinking competency and life-management skills such as self-awareness (psychological and emotional), relationship management (communications and people skills) and social awareness (their social contract, rights and duties). Like their parents, most of the young professionals will drift through life racing for the "American Dream", going through very expensive trial-and-error lessons and struggling to achieve happiness and fulfillment. 

3. Recommendations

This section of the paper provides a list of strategic recommendations proposed by the International Institute of Management to increase America’s Gross National Happiness (GNH). The recommendations address six main public policy areas: Government, Economics, Work, Media, Education and Environment.

A) Government

The role of government should shift from managing economic growth to socioeconomic development. American public policy should shift its focus from:

  • The standard of living to the quality of life.
  • Material possessions to well-being (physical, mental, and material)
  • Unsustainable economic development to sustainable environmental development
  • Consumerism to investment
  • Economic-driven education to socioeconomic-driven education

Government can also make substantial improvements by implementing the following recommendations:

  • Simplify people’s lives through reformed civil laws and taxes.
  • Establish new tax and budget policies in line with public mental, emotional and physical wellness goals. For example, provide funding for the promotion of positive psychology and cultural education in schools, workplaces and public media.
  • Shift policy priority from waging wars (a major source of socioeconomic stress and long-term liability) to local socioeconomic development and foreign collaboration.

It is important to note that the success or failure of any new initiative is dependent on the sponsorship of the power centers within the socioeconomic system. The public must drive Congress to provide additional reforms to ensure honest representation by elected officials and by instituting controls on the abuse of power such as the promotion of private interests on the expense of public good which is also a major source of socioeconomic stress.

B) Economics

In 1972, Bhutan's King Jigme Wangchuck coined the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) (in a casual remark in a public policy conference) to emphasize the holistic values of his government policies and Buddhist spiritual values.

While there has been no independent study to validate the success of Bhutan’s national policies, Wangchuck correctly asserts that economic growth does not necessarily lead to contentment. His philosophy is to focus instead on the following four pillars:

  • Economic self-reliance,
  • A pristine environment,
  • The promotion of culture, and
  • Good governance in the form of a democracy.

The past 30 years, Bhutan saw ad hoc initiatives, but there is no specific policy or measurement framework. Regardless of the King’s future success in formulating and executing his national policies, the concept remains a new and innovative way to look at modern socioeconomic development.

Currently, there is no research or policy framework to support this new concept. There are few isolated subjective happiness surveys and a few initiatives, such as Genuine Progress Index (or GPI) that considers the environmental cost of GDP policies, but does not take into consideration the mental and emotional health and well-being of the citizens.

A new integrated qualitative and quantitative approach is needed  to assist in the creation of a new socioeconomic development model to measure and monitor he development of the nation's most important asset - its people.

A second generation GNH concept (GNH 2.0)  treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric is proposed by the International Institute of Management. The institute proposes to call it Gross National Wellness Index (GNW Index) or Gross National Happiness Index (GNH Index), to credit the King of Bhutan for his inspiring vision.

The metric measures the socioeconomic development by tracking seven development area, including the nation's mental and emotional health. The metric value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following subjective and objective measures:

  1. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct life satisfaction survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of the number of psychotherapy patients
  2. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical safety and  health metrics such as severe and chronic illnesses, disability, obesity and unnatural deaths.
  3. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as job income, purchasing power, jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and labor lawsuits
  4. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, and crime rates
  5. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, minimum and average income to consumer price index ratio, income distribution, disposal income available for retirement savings and investments.
  6. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of living environmental metrics such as nature and infrastructure quality including pollution, noise and traffic.
  7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of government such as local democracy, individual freedom, domestic and foreign conflicts.

The above seven measurements were incorporated into the first Global GNH Index Survey in 2005

While the proposed new GNW or GNH Index may not be all-inclusive or provide a perfect measures, the consideration of the above parameters is a good start when creating a new metric for socioeconomic development and policy management. The results of such survey help identify scientific relations, correlations and cause-effect dynamics.

The institute has noticed an initial interest in the promotion of a concept similar to the GNH Index in the western world. According to Nadia Mustapha’s article in Time magazine, "The Strategy Unit, an internal government think tank that reports to Prime Minister Tony Blair, conducted a seminar on life satisfaction and its public policy implications." Germany, Italy and France are also considering such studies."

While there is an increased political interest in GNH-similar initiatives, there are no concrete proposals that offer an integrated multidimensional framework to help implement and measure the performance new happiness initiatives. The proposed GNH Index can serve as a starting point for such efforts.

C) Work

Equal opportunity is not truly equal until all U.S. populations have equal access to the same quality of education and equitable development programs.

Governments can institute new employment laws to promote life and work balance and to guarantee a healthy (mental and physical) work environment.

Contrary to what some managers think, this recommendation does not have to incur additional costs or liabilities to their businesses, instead it will improve working relationships and productivity and reduce employee turnover. A smart corporate policy will ensure the development of its management team to transform a dominating leadership style into a coaching leadership style with better work and relationship ethics.

D) Media

Without controlling free speech and the commercial rights of media owners, the government can fund public broadcasting to produce more educational and awareness programs to promote mental and emotional well-being, life management skills and social bonding. This will help change the public taste and demand for the type of information and commercial media programs.

E) Education:

If one googles “antidepressants” he  gets about six million pages. If he does the same for "depression prevention" you will get less than 50 thousand. If you google "happiness education" you will get less than 500 results! Even when using different search phrases, the results are more focused on treatment than prevention.

Many mild to moderate depression cases can be eliminated or at least greatly helped with personal life management and happiness education

The institute recommends that happiness education starts in schools by providing basic social education in applied formats to personal and relationship management including basic psychology, self-awareness, leadership development, communication skills, conflict resolution, and basic sociology (social contracts and civil duties).

F) Environment

Institutionalize and enforce better policies to promote a cleaner and safer environment. Example areas include city planning, art, spaces, reduced pollution, noise, traffic, health, and so on.


What are White Papers?

White Papers provide businesses and government leaders with a list of questions, terminologies and discussion points that can be used to address existing or emerging challenges and opportunities. White Papers are succinct advisory documents designed for communication and problem-solving. The structure of the white paper includes three main sections: 1). A statement of the problem or opportunity 2). Analysis of root causes and driving forces 3). Proposed solution and implementation best practices.

About the Author
Med Jones is the president of International Institute of Management, a US based best practices research and education institute. The institute research network includes 55 universities and research partners in 40 countries.

Copyright License

Royalty-free license is granted for using or publishing for educational (non-commercial) purposes, provided that the user/publisher includes a clear reference to the author(s) and International Institute of Management www.iim-edu.org  (Please include the active hyperlink for online publishing). Although publishing the article is free, the use of GNH framework or GNH Index for consulting purposes requires a written permission and a licensing fee.

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