On “Gross National Happiness”

Posted on by Dodge

David Grant, President and CEO

Early on Tuesday morning last week, at the end of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, I drove across the state of Vermont to drop in on the first day of a three-day conference in Burlington on the concept “Gross National Happiness.

GNH Banner

My own level of happiness was not too high at first, since I went to the wrong college campus and had to ask several bemused strangers where the Happiness meeting was.  They must have thought, “What is this, some weird metaphorical pick-up line?”

Anyway, I found the right place eventually and enjoyed hearing about various efforts around the world to do on a societal scale what our Dodge assessment workshops advocate for organizations, which is to “Measure What Matters.”

The most interesting and well-established experiment along these lines is in Bhutan, where they have chosen the goal of Gross National Happiness in deliberate contrast to Gross National Product as the primary measure of a country’s wealth.  That parallel verbal construction creates an immediate understanding of what’s going on, but I agree with one of the speakers who said, “Drop the ‘Gross.’  This is about National Happiness.”  And I agree with another who said the subtitle of the conference, “Changing What We Measure from Wealth to Well-Being,” really should be “Changing the Way We Define Wealth.”

What Bhutan has done has been to create 72 indicators, in NINE areas, nine dimensions of wealth.  (Ecology, Education, Culture, Health, Living Standards, Good Governance, Psychological Well-being, Community Vitality, and Use of Time.) They strive to create public policy with these indicators in mind, and they do a national survey every two years to monitor developments in any and all of them.

I realized why I was drawn to this conversation early on when the secretary of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission invoked in his keynote address the two themes that appear prominently in Dodge’s current guidelines.  He said the indicators were all about his country’s collective vision of what a SUSTAINABLE future would look like for them.  And he said when their biennial surveys gave them data on these indicators, the real work is to craft CREATIVE policies and programs in response to the data and with a sense of the whole that the nine dimensions gives them.

I’ll give you an example.  One of their cultural indicators told them that only 1% of people in Bhutan meditated daily, despite the historical resonance of that practice.  Their interest in psychological well-being focused their attention on the benefits of meditation, and their interest in school climate focused them on the benefits of shared time of quiet and introspection.

The result was a national experiment, through educational policy: two minutes of meditation at the beginning of the school day and two minutes at the end.  (Note that when you are in the habit of measuring results of different practices, you can try things and see if they work.)

The experiment is only four months old, but the early responses are overwhelmingly positive.  Teachers and students say those times of day are the only ones when they can count on having time to think uninterrupted.  They love the new ritual – and they say the tone of the entire school day has subtly changed as a result of the way it begins and ends.

Lest you think this conversation is reserved for people living in, or about to move back to, mountainous kingdoms like Bhutan or Vermont, I should note that hovering over the gathering was the publication of Derek Bok’s new book The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being.

Politics of HappinessWhen the former President of Harvard believes that the findings of scientific research into Happiness are clear enough and significant enough that we should base public policy on them, you know the idea has moved beyond aging hippies and frustrated idealists.  Might it be heading for the mainstream?

I think that shift in the emphasis in medical research has a lesson for us in the world of philanthropy.  Until recently – maybe the last twenty years – research has been based on pathology.  We saw disease and strove to cure it.  And that will always be an important part of medical research.

But as Bok describes well in his book, there is a burgeoning new body of research into well-being, studying why some people are so much happier and healthier than others.  What we learn from it is sobering, because it goes way beyond individual behaviors to cultural assumptions – the way we think about time and work, the accumulation of stuff and the forming of relationships, the balance between libertarian and communitarian values.

Philanthropy will always focus on problems to be solved.  But shouldn’t we also constantly hold up models and visions of societal well-being, even if they call into question – especially if they call into question — cultural assumptions?  It’s a conversation uniquely suited to the flexibility, the privileges, and the responsibilities of foundations.  I have loved being part of it for almost twelve years at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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