I recently had an interesting conversation about the meaning of prosperity. The consensus was that while it may have begun as a word describing well-being and happiness, it has, over time, become almost exclusively associated with financial gain.
Interestingly, the next day, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested that indexing happiness could be as important as determining the level of inflation or unemployment in measuring economic progress. In a pre-recorded speech presented to a conference of economists and statisticians in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bernanke said, “We should seek better and more direct measurements of economic well-being.” After all, Bernanke continued, well-being is “the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”
A happiness index is certainly not without precedent. This April, a United Nations panel discussed the benefits of Bhutan’s index of Gross National Happiness. In June, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development called for a broader index than GDP that would account for environmental and social impacts. Independently, states and countries are indexing well-being and launching their own initiatives: In May, Vermont enacted legislation to compile a new measure of the state’s economic, environment and societal health; related, Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator measures the value of housework and the cost of lost leisure time.
Naturally the “happiness movement” has its detractors. In May, economics analyst Robert Samuelson wrote in The Washington Post that happiness ought to be left to novelists and philosophers, not “economists and psychologists who think it can be distilled into a ‘science’ and translated in pro-happiness policies.” If it were possible to manufacture happiness, he says, then “we could repeal the ‘human condition.’” Conservative political commentator Laura Ingraham called it a construct to “make us feel better about living in a nation in decline” and suggested that the push to measure happiness represents nothing more than another attempt to lower economic expectations.
Where do you stand on the “happiness index?” Is it a way to measure the intangible aspects of overall wellness, or an attempt to placate a nation in difficult times?