Archive for the ‘Gross National Happiness’ Category
Having spent the past thirty-two years in the Silicon Valley/Bay Area region, I guess I’ve grown accustomed to start-ups wreaking havoc in mature industries. Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Google, Facebook….they all were launched within a 15-mile radius of my alma mater, Stanford University, and they went on to revolutionize not just their industry, but they changed our relationship with technology and, frankly, in Facebook’s case, our relationship with each other.
So, I’m not surprised that I’m fascinated with a little, almost-mythical country in the Himalayas that is revolutionizing how world leaders are looking at the definition of success. Like “The Mouse That Roared” (a popular book and film from the late 1950’s about an imaginary, bucolic country situated between France and Switzerland that becomes the admiration of modern society when it declares war on the United States), Bhutan is getting the kind of attention an off-off-Broadway play gets when you know it’s destined to be a hit. In 1972, the 17-year old King of Bhutan asked the blasphemous, “Why are we so focused on Gross Domestic Product? Why aren’t we more concerned with Gross National Happiness?” For nearly forty years now, Bhutan has been remaking their country based upon the premise that the ultimate public good a leader can provide his or her people isn’t material possessions, but instead it’s happiness or well-being.
This “beginner’s mind” idea has found fertile ground in the 21st century as more than forty countries are now studying their own GNH (Gross National Happiness). Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced what some are calling a “joie de vivre index” in France based upon an 18-month study of two Nobel economists who recommended that the largest countries of the world end their obsession with GDP and consider some new intangible metrics. In essence, they’re suggested that GDP – which focuses exclusively on tangible production and consumption – no longer should be our sole definition of global success especially at a time when 64% of the world’s GDP now comes from the intangible service industry. In other words, GDP measures outputs which might have made sense in a more mechanized, industrial era. But, given the knowledge era we now live in, measuring those inputs that influence the output is a more holistic method of evaluating whether we’re creating sustainable success.
This may seem abstract, but it’s extremely relevant to business leaders who have come to realize that a myopic focus on purely the bottom line can have the same effect as driving a car at full speed all the time without doing occasional maintenance and refueling. Here are three important lessons for business leaders to learn from Bhutan:
1. Leaders don’t create happiness for people. The Prime Minister of Bhutan told me his goal is “to create the conditions in which happiness can flourish.” Abe Maslow once suggested business leaders “can set up the conditions so that peak experiences are more likely, or one can perversely set up the conditions so that they are less likely.” Great leaders create healthy habitats. From that healthy habitat sprouts the outputs we’re looking for whether that’s happy citizens or a profitable business. Silicon Valley has an eco-system that is primed for innovation, but as many regions of the world have learned, you can’t easily replicate the intangibles that create such a cultural habitat. So, first, brainstorm with the leaders in your company about what cultural “conditions” would help your company flourish and what kinds of specific things you can do to create that habitat.
2. Leaders value and measure the intangible. The Bhutanese have created a science behind the art of happiness. They measure four pillars, nine key indicators, and seventy-two various metrics to help them understand whether they are creating fertile conditions for happiness. The Gallup organization has developed twelve questions that help leaders measure employee engagement like “at work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” or “does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?” (http://www.workforce.com/section/09/article/23/53/40.html). It’s time for leaders to distinguish between what they can easily count (“are you being paid enough?”) with what employees most value. The intangibles of mission and meaning are powerful fuel for knowledge-driven industries, so find ways to measure these vital inputs.
3. Leaders are willing to deviate from the norm. Most world leaders didn’t take notice when the teenage King of Bhutan asked his impertinent questions about GDP. Those that did notice chuckled and chalked this idea of GNH up to “Buddhist economics.” But, if you’re a small country or a small company, your best strategy to compete with the big boys is to find a niche and own it. In my case when I started my company twenty-three years ago with an inner city motel, I went after rock ‘n roll bands as our core customer, even though conventional hoteliers told me I was crazy to want these party animals. Yet, this target customer was perfectly suited to my funky motel and this was an untapped market (bands) that was growing and recession-proof. Similarly, it took thirty years for the world to embrace Bhutan’s approach to GNH, yet this “happiness niche” has turned out to be much larger than the King of Bhutan ever imagined. Find a niche, embrace it wholly even if it’s unconventional, and deliver on your promise better than any of your competitors.
Happiness surveys typically are a little suspect partly because the definition of happiness is so loose. This is especially the case for surveys that blindly rely on simple self-assessments of the respondents. But, happiness surveys during the holiday season are probably even more tainted given the unique love/hate relationship people have with this time of year. Yet, when three different polls are revealed in December that consistently say that Americans have made great strides in their happiness you have to take notice.
A mid-December poll of 1,000 Americans by AP-Gfk showed that 78% of Americans are either very or somewhat happy – some seriously spiked egg nog must have made its way to that bunch. Another survey of 1.3 million Americans was just revealed by Brit and American researchers and found higher levels of happiness than anyone expected. They also found these results tracked their independent evaluation of the portions of the country that had the greatest intrinsic quality of life based upon a variety of measures. Oddly, Louisiana was #1 in both happiness and the researchers’ perspective on quality of life. Given that this state is normally in the bottom ten of most surveys for just about everything, they must have asked the question around Mardi Gras time when the environmental “joie de vivre” is quite high in the Pelican State or maybe the locals are just happy their NFL Saints are winning. Finally, the Gallup-Healthway Daily Life Evaluation Index of random Americans is now 50% higher than it was a year ago and is at a historically high level. Are we lying to the researchers or are we just high on life?
One of my favorite musicals of all time is RENT. There’s a goosebump-creating song with the enchanting lyrics of “525,600 minutes…how do you measure a year?” This play was a modern take on the classic La Boheme and suggested that Americans could find happiness by being a little more bohemian. Is that what 2009 signifies? Our stab at a little piece of bohemia in the heartland? Are we measuring our own happiness in new ways now that we have a “new normal?” If disappointment equals expectations minus reality, does ratcheting down our expectations create the opposite of disappointment?
I came face-to-face with potential answers to these questions in San Francisco’s bustling Union Square shopping district last week. I ran into a friend from college who was with his wife and two kids. They had just embarrassed themselves on ice skates in the open air of the Square. The four of them giggled like they were on laughing gas and my buddy told me he’d “never been happier.” So, being a bit of a happiness researcher myself, I asked him what’s going on in his life. He told me that both he and his wife had been laid off in Silicon Valley a year earlier. They fretted the first three months and then they downsized everything in their lives from their home to their cars to their vacations to how they spent money on food. In fact, they’d chosen this year to only give “Christmas experiences” to each other. No material gifts. No standing in line at department stores. No traffic at the mall. Each of the four members of the family were responsible for giving three experiences to each of the three other members, with ice skating in the city being an example of one of them. Somehow I imagined Henry David Thoreau sitting on my friend’s shoulder whispering his famous quote from Walden Pond: “That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.”
And, instead of desperately seeking jobs, he and his wife chose to volunteer for a couple of non-profits they’d always admired but never had been able to engage with. Before he shoved off for their next family experience in the city, my friend lobbed a philosophical softball my way: “success is having what you want, while happiness is wanting what you have.” Dude, where did you learn that? I don’t remember that class at Stanford! Interestingly, four of the five states at the bottom of that happiness poll I mentioned earlier were the success-motivated, aspiration treadmills of California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Is this some communist plot to lull us into capitalistic complacency? I noticed in that same poll that Hawaii came in second behind Louisiana. Between the Bourbon Street booze and the Maui wowie, I guess I can understand why those two states are so happy, but what does this mean for the future of our country?
What if Forbes magazine were to follow up their cover article featuring the 400 Richest People in the country with a cover story of the 400 Happiest People in the country? Maybe it’s time to redefine the idea of wealth. I suspect that while 2009 has been an emotional rollercoaster for so most of us, it’s also been a year for wanting what we have rather than being obsessed with what we want. It seems as if gratification gave way to gratitude. And, maybe our painful sense of entitlement is evaporating as a result. There’s no doubt that the Great Depression three quarters of a century ago was a great equalizer and humbler. It brought people together and it shifted expectations. And, from the ashes of that burned-out economy, perseverance and ingenuity led to three decades of unparalleled progress in the 1940’s through 60’s. So, I guess it’s time for us to put our feet up, relax a little, and know that good times are ahead. More importantly, just as I learned from RENT, the good times are now and we have 525,600 moments per year to experience them.
[Originally posted Sept. 29, 2009 on the Huffington Post]
As the world’s leaders descended on the burg of Pitts, that rascal Sarkozy handed out a French-made pair of 3-D glasses. Upon the one-year anniversary of the financial meltdown, the French president suggested that we’ve been evaluating the financial world with one eye closed and have been distracted by the “cult of statistics” that traditional economists feed us. Now that his Nobel-winning duet of economists (Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen) have delivered their report that suggests France adopt a “Joie de Vivre” index, this conservative president has started sounding like a leftist or at least someone who spends a little too much time reading Sartre in Left Bank cafes. And, of course, the conventionally wise around the world chortled about how naïve this diminutive president could be since happiness and joie de vivre aren’t really measurable. In fact, for most economists, if you can’t measure something accurately, it ain’t real. Maybe that’s why economists are such a glum bunch.
What is the recipe for success for a country? We’ve been worshiping at the altar of Gross Domestic Product for nearly a half-century, yet one observer recently suggested, “If we all put bars on our windows and buy face masks to deal with pollution, guess what? GDP goes up. That doesn’t mean we are better off.” In 1968, Robert Kennedy suggested that GDP “counts napalm and nuclear warheads” and, yet, here we are forty years later, just starting to ask the blasphemous question of “what is real?” Economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests, “What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong measures, we will strive for the wrong things.” There was a time when having a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage was our real measurement of success in this country, but maybe it’s become our measure of excess in the past few decades.
First, Bhutan…now, France. Are we on the verge of a great revolution in which political leaders redefine what’s real and what’s measurable? Forty national governments are studying or adapting Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index to imagine how they could create the conditions for their people to have greater well-being. As Sarkozy says, “If leisure has no accounting value because it’s essentially full of non-market activities like sport or culture, we put productivity above human fulfillment.” Take it from a Frenchman, they know their leisure!
Well, I know something about Joie de Vivre, myself, as it’s the impractical name I chose for my company twenty-three years ago. Our mission statement (“creating opportunities to celebrate the joy of life”) sounds straight out of the French socialist playbook, yet this mantra has allowed us to grow into the country’s second largest boutique hotel company. Miraculously, making employees and customers happy creates beaucoup bucks for our hotel investors (although less so in times like these). And, we measure all kinds of things that our traditional hotelier counterparts don’t typically fathom: our employees’ sense of meaning and connection in the workplace; the number of employees who take sabbaticals (all our salaried employees get a one-month paid sabbatical every three years); our customers’ sense of feeling they are in their perfect habitat in our hotels; and the amount of money we raise for grassroots community organizations.
If you were president, what key metrics would you try to evaluate to determine whether you were leading a successful country? Here are some of my suggestions, but I look forward to reading yours:
% of High School Grads who go to College
% of the Population that volunteer their time or donate financially to non-profits
Commute time (obviously, with higher rankings for shorter commutes)
Legal immigration demand (this has historically been an important measure of America’s greatness)
Capacity for innovation (either through measuring patents or the like)
# of Hours Worked/GDP (our productivity is at the expense of our leisure)
[Originally posted Sept. 16, 2009 on The Huffington Post]
The Fed announced the obvious last week. They told us we’re on a slow path of recovery and that the recession may be declared over this quarter based upon the fact that current economic indicators are a little less pathetic than they were last summer. But, they also told us the unemployment rate ain’t coming down any time soon. In fact, expect the U.S. to crest above the 10% rate some time in the next few months as we’re currently at 9.7% nationally. And, in my backyard (California), be prepared for a lucky 13% unemployment rate by year-end. When you factor in people who are no longer full-time or are now earning substantially less in a new job, nearly one in five Californians are “underemployed” or unemployed.
I don’t know about you, but a jobless recovery seems pretty joyless to me. Earlier this decade, economists were telling Americans that we were experiencing a boom, yet a large percentage of us were still raiding the cookie jar (our home equity) to pay the bills. I’m wondering whether there’s a growing disconnect between how we define macro-prosperity with how it shows up in our micro-lives and what kind of psychological damage that does to us along the way.
A couple of weeks ago I tipped a few beers back with an unemployed, old friend who lamented the fact he was in a “sexless marriage.” Given my natural proclivity toward being a shrink, I inquired a little more without getting into the juicy – or not so juicy – details. As it turns out, this poor fellow wasn’t as sexless as he proclaimed. In reality, he and his wife had a once a month date night in which they renewed their wedding vows but, from his perspective, their sex life had become as predictable as the depressing monthly unemployment figures. But, the light bulb turned on for me when I asked him why he calls their marriage sexless when, in fact, it isn’t. He told me that two of his best male friends had recently gotten divorced from their wives and were living life in the sexual fast lane with all kinds of hedonistic stories to share. My buddy wailed, “I used to be so focused on keeping up with the Jones with my conspicuous consumption. I lost that game. Now, I’m jobless and sexless. I feel like a failure. The only thing I can do well is to drink beer.”
We don’t like to admit it, but our definition of success has an awful lot to do with positional consumption – how we compare ourselves with others. Our national shrink-in-chief Dr. Obama might want to consider the cognitive dissonance he and the Fed are unleashing on the country when they tell us we’re doing better, yet we see the ranks of the unemployed swelling further. While we hear this is a pretty severe recession, many industries (like the one I’m in – hospitality) are clearly having depression-like symptoms. Whether it’s a recession or a depression, it’s leading to the Great Repression. One of the dictionary definitions of “repression” is “the classical defense mechanism that protects you from impulses or ideas that would cause anxiety by preventing them from becoming conscious.” My buddy is doing his best to stay unconscious about his jobless recovery and his sexless marriage and he’s doing it by drinking more. In fact, this summer the Gallup organization reported that alcohol – especially beer – is one of the few consumer products that has held its own in this downturn. As a guy who owns hotels, restaurants, spas, and bars, I can tell you that our bars are the only one of those four types of hospitality businesses that have seen little disruption in their year-over-year revenues.
So, the next time Ben Bernanke tells us that we’re on the road to recovery just know that he’s sending a few more people into recovery in the near future once they realize the beer isn’t solving their confusion of why their personal financial situation isn’t mirroring what they’re hearing on TV.
[originally posted May 18, 2009 on the Huffington Post]
Can little Bhutan with its humanistic development philosophy create a new global currency of well-being? For you skeptics who think innovation only occurs in the developed world, consider Bangladesh’s Muhammad Yunus and his microlending approach to financing the aspirations of the poor. Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, has helped to revolutionize how the financial community and governments view the poor and the Grameen Bank’s efforts have led to similar projects in more than 40 countries. Bangladesh, a country that’s even poorer than Bhutan, has taught us that business can’t sustainably thrive in societies that fail at the bottom of the pyramid.
Simon Bolivar, the South American independence leader, said long ago, “The most perfect system of government is that which produces the greatest possible amount of happiness.” Bhutan, through its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, has tapped into that fundamental aspiration that unites us. The Bhutanese have redefined their objective of development and countries around the world are taking notice. In tandem with the growth of the positive psychology movement, there is a new paradigm arising in both global economics and psychology. Recognizing that modern man has been liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it, psychologists and economists are seeking new ways to measure the intangibles of public welfare.
One wise man once wrote, “Happiness is designed to evaporate.” So, how do you measure something that disappears? The U.N. Millennium Summit commissioned the largest international poll ever taken (by the Gallup organization) and found that people value good health and a happy family far more than they do material well-being. The Philippines have modified their approach to measuring subjective well-being such that each individual surveyed identifies which particular domains – whether it’s leisure time or compensation – are most important to them and then the government is able to tabulate the overall subjective well-being for the country. Given that the U.S. is on the cusp of its 2010 census, wouldn’t it be instructive for us to ask more meaningful questions than just the demographic and personal financial data of our citizens?
As the CEO of hospitality company that surveys the well-being of our 3,500 employees twice a year, I’ve learned that asking revealing questions – beyond the tangible of “are you getting paid enough?” – helps us better understand how we can address our employees’ higher needs. We have been able to create the conditions for our people to feel more engaged and inspired by asking, “Have you been recognized for what you do in the past month?” or “Do you feel that your work positively impacts our customers and how do you know this?” And, we’ve cut our employee turnover to one-quarter the industry average by rethinking what we’re measuring. Our people will never aspire to more than a job if all they focus on is the fact that they clean toilets in a hotel. But when one sees the broader purpose of what they do, they start to realize their work can fulfill in ways they hadn’t imagined. And, the positive result of being in a workplace full of happy fellow employees is noticeable to everyone who comes into contact with an organization. Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis has shown that happiness – like the fear and the flu – can spread from person to person and even affects people peripherally like neighbors and relatives.
What if we took Abraham Maslow’s ideal of self-actualization and used it as an organizing principle beyond the individual? Most don’t realize that in his latter years, Abe Maslow was focused on how to take this individual-focused theory and apply it more collectively to organizations. I’ve found that using his Hierarchy of Needs theory as a means of understanding the collective higher needs of my company brought me great insight. In essence, Bhutan is doing that as a country as they’re focusing more on the intangible higher needs that a tangible metric like GDP misses. What the world needs now is an actualization index that measures something worthwhile, something that helps us move people up both the economic pyramid as well as Maslow’s needs pyramid.
The world’s economic crisis is a symptom of a deeper malaise that threatens our collective well-being and survival, yet using the old measuring tools may not allow us to address the disease beyond its symptoms. Many of our dominant economic theories – from Smith to Ricardo – were espoused in the 19th century and were based upon the tangible scarcity in agricultural and industrial societies. While the world’s tangible, precious natural resources are certainly scarce, some of our deprivation today is in the intangibles of the cultural, spiritual, and emotional realm. Some of the scarcity is “capability deprivation,” those who have talents but lack access to opportunity or “time deprivation,” a scarcity that’s very familiar in modern society. How do economists evaluate the theory of scarcity when it comes to the intangibles that define the quality of modern life?
We’ve been too pervasively susceptible to confusing ends and means and needs and wants. Is it possible that Gross Domestic Product should just be a subset of a Gross National Happiness index rather than the other way around? As we’re exposing so many emperors with no clothes these days, can we now see that GDP is an artifact from a time when it was presumed that if there were more goods in circulation, general welfare would naturally follow? Paraphrasing Viktor Frankl, the world has been pushed by drives, but it is now pulled by meaning. The vast and intricate envy-producing machine called “consumerism” may have overpowered the other “isms” with a “c”: communism and capitalism. But a good portion of the world has woken up to the insatiable and insane arms race that comes with “positional consumption,” buying not to meet a need but to create a relative superiority. Gandhi said it best, “The world has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not enough to satisfy one’s greed.” It is time for the world to reconsider what we measure and how the very act of measurement impacts what matters.
[originally posted May 11, 2009 on the Huffington Post]
Born in the shadow of Disneyland, I have a natural predilection for seeking happy utopias. Having founded a company named Joie de Vivre in a place described as “49 square miles surrounded by reality” (San Francisco), I’m not surprised by my fascination with Bhutan, the first country in the world to proclaim happiness as its primary civic goal.
Flying into this Himalayan Shangri-La, I was immediately struck by the world’s highest unclimbed mountain, the exquisite temples perched precariously on cliffs, the friendly and handsome people adorned in traditional silk attire, and a healthy dose of wafting incense and chanting mantras. With relatively strict limits on foreign travelers (about 50 a day), there were virtually no mainstream tourists to be found scurrying from holy site to spectacular vista. This is the kind of “boutique country” that could resonate with a boutique hotelier like me.
I came here to learn how the world’s newest democracy could be a model for a new definition of global success. But, understanding that this thoroughly un-modern place was no bulls-eye (they love archery here) for the conventional definition of a developed country, I pondered whether poverty and utopia could co-exist?
Fortunately, I started my investigation dining with the Prime Minister and a collection of the leaders of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) movement. At dinner, when the Prime Minister said his goal was “to create the conditions in which happiness could flourish,” I almost fell off my seat. My happiness guide Abe Maslow suggested in life and especially in the workplace, “One can set up the conditions so that peak experiences are more likely, or one can perversely set up the conditions so that they are less likely.” Having visited Zimbabwe two years earlier, I viscerally understood that “creating conditions” for a happiness habitat is one of the most profound responsibilities of any leader (as there’s no better example of a set of perverse conditions than in Zimbabwe.)
The Bhutanese dream big (and so did I as my week was full of lucid and vivid dreams). They don’t dream in material ways, but the leaders I spoke with talked about development in such humanistic terms that I worried that their goals might remain lofty and intangible. Fortunately, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission has spent the past five years identifying nine key indicators that they now measure to gauge civic well-being: environmental conservation, sustainable and equitable economic development, promotion of culture, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, health and wellness, accessibility of education, and how people allocate their time daily. As one new member of Parliament said to me, “Bhutan will never be a financial or military world leader, but we can be the leader in learning how to preserve our culture and live a rich life.” I learned long ago in business, if you’re small, go niche, and the Bhutanese have got the happiness niche down to a science.
Given the civic boosterism of Bhutan’s GNH movement, there were moments when I thought I was part of some Madison Avenue advertising stunt. This primitive paradise all seemed a little too perfect, even with all the rough and occasionally inconvenient edges. Clearly, those of us in the “developed” world long for a place where the grass is greener (literally, they’ve got green “grass” as marijuana grows uncut throughout the country), where simplicity, authenticity, generosity, and safe drinking water abound (three out of four ain’t bad). Franklin Delano Roosevelt even named his presidential retreat Shangri-La (later renamed Camp David) based upon the imagination of such a far-off nirvana.
But, Bhutan isn’t just a Hollywood set for Lost Horizon. There’s a contentment here that is real. As one observer suggested, Bhutan is “simultaneously placid and intellectually invigorating”….not a simple combination. Their Tantric Buddhist traditions (there are more monks than soldiers), the unspoiled landscape, their splendid isolation (the last country in the world to have television), their benevolent kings, and their unique history of never being colonized nor conquered, have all created the conditions for happiness to flourish. But, beyond that, in a modern world full of self-help books and shrinks on every corner, the Bhutanese don’t “pursue” happiness (there’s supposedly just one psychiatrist in the country). Happiness is the natural by-product of a life built on gratitude, not gratification. There may have been a time when “ignorance was bliss” in this country, but today Bhutan is well-aware of how it delightfully deviates from the world’s national norms. And, there’s even an Emotional Equation I cooked up that sums up their unique recipe that the rest of us could learn from:
Happiness = Wanting What You Have divided by Having What You Want
(credit: William Shakespeare)
So, can we bottle Bhutan and distribute it to the rest of the world? No doubt, we’ve entered an era in which global transformation isn’t just a nice idea, it’s truly an imperative. But, could a little country the size of Switzerland, with a population no larger than my hometown, and a per capita GDP smaller than Haiti prove to be a leader in a new movement toward an alternative metric for success? Bhutan is ironically bordered by two countries which represent nearly 40% of the world’s population (China to the north and India to the south) where the 21st century’s version of “middle class values” will be borne. Will this new generation of the Jones (or Wangs or Shahs) pursue excess as their definition of success? If Bhutan plays its cards right, this country is fated to be noticed and potentially be a role model for how we measure and define happiness and well-being in the new millennium.
[Originally posted April 29, 2009 on the Huffington Post]
Who defines what you value? Of course, we would love to think that we alone define our own sense of value. But, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that – on a global basis – our definition of what’s important is incredibly influenced by statisticians and economists using the equivalent of an abacus to define human progress in the 21st century.
A country’s Gross Domestic Progress (GDP) has been the world’s holy grail for nearly four decades (which was proceeded by similar measure, Gross National Product). This universal measuring tool, as a means of determining which countries are “developed” and which are not, is a gross tally of a nation’s production and consumption. By definition, it assumes every monetary transaction adds to the developed nature or social well-being of a country. In practice, this rewarding of production and consumption masks many of development’s costs whether those costs be the workaholism and materialism associated with these toils or the prisons that are constructed to incarcerate those who don’t play by the rules. Just consider that pollution – or environmental degradation – shows a double benefit to GDP, scoring points when we pollute and, once again, when we attempt to clean-up our messes. This “gross” (love the pun, don’t you?) definition of a country’s value is an artifact from an earlier era that assumes that economic development would naturally lead to human development.
There’s too much evidence today showing that this GDP = Quality of Life perspective is just plain wrong both in the developed and the less-developed world. U.S. per capita income since World War II has tripled and our homes are twice the size, but there’s no reputable survey that shows that Americans are statistically any happier today than they were during Eisenhower’s era. In fact, there’s more and more evidence that past a certain modest level of economic survival, humans tend to judge their happiness more on a relative basis (“keeping up with the Jones”) than on some objective, personal criteria. Capitalism and GDP are the perfect recipes for this zero-sum game of conspicuous consumption. And, in the developing world, we are able to see within a decade’s time the societal costs associated with a GDP-driven strategy, whether they are growing income inequities or the loss of generations of cultural traditions.
Why is this important? Well, the indicators we use for societal success determine our policies and even embody our values. While there’s no doubt that GDP provides an objective, easily-measurable means of defining the relative success of various countries that’s like saying that we could judge a boy’s character by how tall he is. In 1972, Bhutan’s new King Jigme Singye Wangchuck had a moment of clarity that would have inspired MasterCard (even this credit card giant realizes the importance of the intangibles of life: “there are some things money can’t buy…for everything else, there’s MasterCard”). This King of a tiny country wedged between China and India suggested the blasphemous: why don’t we value the intangible of happiness in our calculations of whether a country is getting it right. Twenty-seven years before the country would have its first TV installed in a home, King Wangchuck proclaimed that Bhutan would follow a Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) instead of GDP.
Since that time, a diverse collection of countries, from Australia and the Netherlands to Sri Lanka and Haiti, have jumped on the happiness bandwagon. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has teamed up with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz to create a Quality of Life Commission to study which indicators have the greatest effect on well-being. There are now HDI’s (the U.N’s Human Development Index), HPI’s (Happy Planet Index), and GPI’s (Genuine Progress Indicators) that factor in such subjective criteria as the crime rate in a country, the percentage of couples getting divorced, a country’s carbon impact on the world, and the access to education. Just like the triple bottom line is gaining momentum in the business world (an alternative means of defining a company’s success based upon people and the planet, not just profits), the governing powers that be are recognizing that these times require a new method of thinking about how we define progress.
If this seems a little abstract, let me share a personal example of how using new, more intangible measuring tools helped save my company during the last economic downturn. When my San Francisco Bay Area hotel company was getting rocked to its core by the combination of the dot-com crash, 9/11, and a variety of other factors beyond our control, I realized that the traditional methods we’d used that defined our success – like year-over-year revenue or profit growth – were no longer relevant as a relative measure of our success since, frankly, everyone was showing huge drops in revenue and net income. Instead, we started giving greater attention to our employee satisfaction surveys and competitive market share as a means of guiding our business strategy. Lo and behold, we came to find that the intangibles of having supremely-engaged employees or evangelical customers created the kind of deep loyalty that allowed us to transcend the bad times. It wasn’t that profits and net income weren’t important, but they were actually the lagging indicators of our success. Changing our approach from measuring these byproducts to, instead, measuring the inputs (happy employees and customers) helped my company triple in size during a very difficult time. So, I’ve seen from personal experience that what you measure matters. And, sometimes, you have to adapt your measuring tools to the intangibles in life that truly define success.
So, tonight I travel to Bhutan and tomorrow I have dinner with some of the royal family (including, hopefully, the new King, who at 29, has an incredible likeness to Elvis) and a collection of the members of their relatively new democratic government. I will be meeting with members of the Gross National Happiness Commission to understand the nine key areas that they measure and to question whether a subjective means of measurement has risks of devolving into a sort of “Brave New World” paternalism (don’t worry, we know what will make you happy).
Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” This has been the case for world leaders who’ve myopically been focused on GDP as the only tool in their toolbox. There’s a growing misalignment between the kind of human needs Maslow and others have espoused and the professed world economic goals as defined by production and consumption. Robert Kennedy probably summed it up best four years before the Bhutanese King uttered the concept of the Gross Happiness Index, “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product…counts…cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage….Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the quality of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Our American forefathers wrote about our unalienable right toward the “pursuit of happiness” long ago. I am now pursuing the ephemeral concept of happiness in Bhutan and I’ll report back to you in a few days as my next posting will overview what I’ve learned from this trip.