Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gross National Happiness

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing that nations drop their fixation on gross domestic product as the leading indicator of economic progress and instead try to measure quality of life aspects such as availability of health care and education, protection of natural resources, and amount of leisure time.

The idea is that by fixating on GDP we are encouraging nations to engage in overly-risky behavior and to degrade the environment, which destroy the quality of life of the people and work to their detriment. The counter argument is a happiness index will not help countries decide how to allocate their resources and that, while it is important to attempt to track something subjective like happiness, it is not in order to replace a purely economic standard like GDP.

GDP is the total value of goods and service produced in a nation during a year. I won't pretend to understand it much deeper than that, but it is basically the standard measure of a nation's economic strength and, therefore, of its population's standard of living.

The question the French are asking, I think, is whether or not we should even be focusing on raw economic data, as opposed to focusing on the happiness and contentment of the people. Which nation is better off, the one with a high GDP but a demoralized and unhappy citizenry, or the nation with a moderate GDP but a happy and optimistic citizenry? The former conjures up images of a coldly efficient industrial nation-complex where management lords over labor. The latter conjures up, well, France. A nation of sidewalk cafes, 35-hour work weeks, and a lot of college graduates with degrees in philos0phy.

Joseph Smith said that:
Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.
So are we focusing on the wrong priorities? Shouldn't we really be living our lives in order to find happiness and security, as opposed to finding the highest paying job and accumulating the most stuff at the expense of our happiness and the happiness of our families. I am about to find out on a personal level. I am taking a massive pay cut to take a job that I think I will like a whole lot more than my current job. This isn't entirely voluntary or premeditated, but I'm kind of excited to find out how we deal with it. I will work fewer hours, make less money, work towards a cause I believe in, make less money, and spend more time with my family. And make a lot less money. We'll see how we handle it.

Now, I've spent quite a bit of time in France and I know what their quality of life is like. I know what their pace of life is like. Frankly (no pun), I find it appealing. I understand that not everyone in France is happy, but I would say that the French are generally happier and live a better quality of life than Americans. Perhaps I am going to channel a little of that French in me.

But here in America we look down our noses on the French as lazy and socialist, we scoff at their work habits and high unemployment. But shouldn't be also be envious of their quality of life? Should we strive to be a more happy nation as opposed to a more efficient nation? I don't even think those two ideas are mutually exclusive, but perhaps one follows the other.

I believe that we would be a more optimistic and happy nation if we cut down on our pollution, grant access to affordable health care to every citizen, give every citizen a free, world-class education, all while providing physical and economic security. I think this is what the French are trying to emphasize, what I am going to attempt to live with my new career, and that this is the hope that President Obama sold us.


Daniel H said...

I think you're spot on with this.

peter said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the core idea of your post…happiness is desirable and should be something that we strive for. Happiness is not something we find in money, possessions, or power. The French do have a slower pace that I think we would do well to consider on and, in some aspects, emulate. I would submit, however, that a large portion of that happiness which you ascribe to the French is derived from finding contentment in the circumstances they find themselves in and being satisfied with what they have. And as you pointed out, in most cases, I would say that they have less than we do.

“Shouldn't we really be living our lives in order to find happiness and security, as opposed to finding the highest paying job and accumulating the most stuff at the expense of our happiness and the happiness of our families?” Happiness is a state of mind and comes from the inside. Happiness is a decision. It is usually associated with family, spirituality, causes…things that take us outside our selfishness and focus on others. Happiness comes from finding the beauty around us and in others.

Just as happiness does not come from high paying jobs and lots of “stuff,” neither does it come from getting things from the government. Happiness cannot be legislated and should not be associated with passing any specific political agenda. If you can’t be happy without government-sponsored health care, cap and trade, or a completely free education, you aren’t going to be happy if these things ever come to pass.