Counting What Really Counts

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“Every day, millions of people share how they feel with the people who matter the most in their lives…”

Ever since I came across the work of Adam Kramer (a psychologist from the University of Oregon) to develop a behavioural model of “Gross National Happiness” using analysis of positive and negative words in Facebook updates, I’ve been kind of intrigued by the possibilities of being able to measure something that is truly worth measuring – the happiness of a population. Kramer’s work resulted in a quantitative GNH metric that could be tracked and plotted over time, like the visual below of UK happiness over the last six months (notice the big dip when England went out of the world cup).

And then recently, I see the work of Alan Mislove, a computer scientist at Northeastern University, who used twitter to map the emotional state of America:

In his TED talk, Chip Conley talks about how focusing on the more intangible, higher needs (the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy) of not just his customers but his employees, transformed the performance of his business. It makes sense. Happy people really do work harder. He describes a visit to Bhutan, which has a long commitment to building an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values and measuring ‘national happiness’ through a complex set of subjective and objective indicators (including time use and balance, community vitality and psychological well-being). In Bhutan, the nation prioritises gross national happiness above gross domestic product, and that dictates what it measures.
When President Sarkozy of France commissioned a team of economists led by the Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz to look into the measurement of economic performance and social progress, they reported that GDP was a flawed measure for progress. It only picks up activity that is paid for, not activity which might be deemed economic but is unpaid (such as volunteer work, or child-care). It is only an average measure, so whilst GDP might go up, significant proportions of the population might still be no better off. And it takes no account of sustainability. High GDP can happen at the expense of finite resources. It counts all production regardless of whether it’s good or bad for us. And some have even said that it treats loss of eco-system services as a benefit instead of as a cost. Yet too often, this narrow measure of market performance, becomes an inappropriate and an inadequate proxy for broader, and likely unconnected (as the chart below, taken from Brookings Papers On Economic Activity, shows) measures of human well-being.
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Bhutan’s goal is not to create happiness, but to create the conditions for happiness to occur. Like Stiglitz, I believe that what we measure affects what we do. And if we have the wrong measures we strive for the wrong things. It becomes an end in itself, leading to distortions of policy, perverse incentives, unsustainable growth. The message of that team of economists was that one number cannot capture everything. I’m left wondering why, if we’re serious about creating the conditions for happiness to occur, we aren’t thinking harder about how we might one day use the connections between us, and the data that flows along them, to define an altogether better measure for human well-being. One that, whilst inherently intangible, feels closer to what really matters to most people in their daily lives.