The COVID lockdown has cut “economic growth”, but what does that mean – and does it matter?
How can you measure happiness? What makes people in one country happier than in another?
There are indeed different ways of measuring happiness, or wellbeing. Maybe you’ve heard lately about a thing called GDP, or gross domestic product.
It is all the things a country makes or sells. Imagine adding up all the shoes made in your country, all the haircuts people paid for, and so on. That’s basically GDP. The bigger it is, the richer we say the country is.
Most governments promise to make people richer – and they like to have GDP growth to get voted in again.
Costs – and benefits – of a virus
Today, there are big problems. The shoemakers, the hairdressers and lots of other people, have had to stay at home to stop the corona virus, COVID-19. So, GDP didn’t grow. It shrank. Through not working, many people have less money.
But hang on. If we look around, we see that staying at home isn’t all bad. Our air is cleaner, for example. That’s good for our health.
So, you can see that wellbeing doesn’t only depend on making and buying more and more so that GDP goes up.
A happy example
To think about what else matters, let’s take a little trip. To a country called Bhutan.
Fifty years ago, the “Dragon King” of Bhutan, a country of small towns lost in big mountains, between India and China, made a decision. He was only 17 when he decided that he wanted to increase, not GDP, but Gross National Happiness – GNH!
So, what’s in GNH? Well, it includes measuring how much children learn, how many doctors there are, clean air and water, musicians, playtime …
In Bhutan, they measure these things, rather than the output of factories, to work out if people are happy. And they use that to decide what the government does.
You choose: GDP or GNH?
We can all ask ourselves the same questions. Try this “thought experiment”:
Imagine you have a GDP just for you. It counts only your food and your toys. To get them, you have to go to school. Now, imagine you’ve eaten so much you’re totally full. Your toys fill a house. But you have no time to play, because school lasts all day.
To get richer, to grow your GDP, you have to work more to get more food and toys. What would you do? More work and more GDP? Or more playtime and more GNH?
Questions after lockdown
These are questions that people are asking right now around the world. Because of course people want to work and have the things they need.
But people also ask if working more and making more is the best way to live – if that means more pollution, more stress or making some people much poorer than others. They ask, can we change our habits and be happier?
The good news is, you don’t have to go all the way to Bhutan. For the last few years, the United Nations, the club for world governments, has calculated how happy their countries are. They all want growth that will be better for people and the planet.
Some countries now use “wellbeing” (as well as GDP) as a goal.
Scotland is one, along with Iceland and New Zealand. The three women who lead those countries have set up their own club, the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo).
Scotland measures things like the “happiness of children” and people enjoying the countryside, not just factory output.
The whole point of running a country, says Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, is “to promote the happiness” of its people.
If we only try to make GDP grow, we make more stuff – but that can hurt the environment, and people, too.
Instead of measuring just GDP, we can measure other things too, like clean air and water. That’s good for everyone!
Lots of resources at the home of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance
The UN explains why happiness is a goal here
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon explains the Wellbeing Economy here and in this video.
Check out this upbeat explanation of Bhutan’s GNH:
Al Jazeera takes a balanced look at Bhutan: no magic formula for happiness: