Gross National Happiness

One of the most commonly used measures by which we gauge the health of our economy is GDP growth. GDP, or gross domestic product, is defined by Investopedia as, “the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.” Economists look at GDP growth over time (quarter over quarter, year over year, etc.) to determine a country’s economic health and productivity. If you look at the definition, you can see that the implication is that more money = good. Nothing unusual there – most people tend to agree that more money = good, right? Take the recent winner of the $338 million Powerball jackpot. We all assume that whoever bought that ticket is about to be the happiest person on the planet. I can’t tell you how many times I catch myself daydreaming about what I would do if I won the lottery (note to my employers: I NEVER do this on work time, and it never involves me running out of my office without a backward glance). In talking with others about it we tend to agree that, while money can’t exactly buy happiness, a certain amount can provide the freedom to pursue what makes us happy, unfettered by the drudgery required to pay bills and feed our families. At least, that’s what we think.

I recently watched a documentary entitled, “Happy” which touches on the lives of various people around the globe, and seeks to discover what makes them happy. Surprisingly, some of the happiest people were also the poorest, financially speaking. A common theme among these self-described happy people was a supportive community of family and friends, as well as a sense of purpose in life. Researchers have found that money does affect happiness, up to a point – the point where basic needs are met. Beyond this, levels of happiness do not vary significantly between those making $50,000 a year and those making $5,000,000 a year (note to my employers: this does not get you off the hook for raises). Some of this is determined at a genetic level, almost as if we are all born with a “set point” for happiness, and no amount of good fortune or tragedy will cause a person to deviate from their set point for long.

Getting back to GDP – my favorite part of the documentary was about Bhutan, a country that has chosen to measure growth not by the monetary value of goods and services, but by the happiness of its citizens. Instead of a GDP index they have a GNH index, which stands for gross national happiness. According to the “short” (over 100 page) guide to the index I found online, “the GNH Index is meant to orient the people and the nation towards happiness, primarily by improving the conditions of not-yet-happy people. In the GNH Index, unlike certain concepts of happiness in current western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional – not measured only by subjective well-being, and not focused narrowly on happiness that begins and ends with oneself and is concerned for and with oneself. The pursuit of happiness is collective, though it can be experienced deeply personally. Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances and the options for diversity must be wide.”

One of my coworkers wrote a piece for our second quarter newsletter about the positive physical and emotional benefits we can reap by volunteering and giving back to our communities. The researchers interviewed for the documentary agreed that the happiest people tend to be the ones with strong ties to friends, family, and community, and who feel they have a sense of purpose in the world. As folks transition into retirement, I think it is especially important to remain active in the community and regularly get together with friends and family. Humans are social animals; we have evolved to thrive in groups and to enjoy helping others. That kind of happiness is free and available to everyone. But I’m still going to buy an occasional lottery ticket.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Research

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