More to a country's wellbeing than economic success


The idea of Gross National Happiness has great visionary and symbolic power, writes Maureen Gaffney

IN 1972, the little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan did a very radical and wise thing. The king established a Gross National Happiness programme, intended to be a more accurate measure of national wellbeing than GDP, or indeed GNP, the primary indicators of social wellbeing in western nations.

Ireland, currently in the grip of a post-Celtic Tiger hangover, may seem a little way off achieving such wisdom, but not as much as we might fear. The publication by the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) of an important discussion paper on wellbeing and competitiveness is another important step in the acknowledgement by Government and senior policymakers that the definition of national success must be amplified well beyond the traditional measures of economic wellbeing.

The discussion paper is thoughtful and, with some caveats, a well-researched exploration of what constitutes wellbeing, the drivers of wellbeing, and the limitations of current measures in assessing wellbeing.

Its particular focus is on the relationship between wellbeing and competitiveness. Its conclusions are that an environment that supports high levels of wellbeing is an important driver of competitiveness and this relationship is likely to become stronger as Ireland seeks to shift towards the production of knowledge-intensive goods and services.

The discussion paper documents, as many previous reports have done, Ireland's remarkable economic success and exceptional performance on current cross-national measures of wellbeing, both objective and subjective. On the UN's Human Development Index objective measures of wellbeing (life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income), Ireland ranks fourth in the world. On Eurobarometer and Eurofound subjective measures (life satisfaction, levels of happiness and sense of belonging) Ireland consistently performs very strongly.

Yet Ireland, in common with other developed economies, continues to fret about quality of life - and with good reason. Beyond a certain level, higher GDP or GNP does not translate into increased societal wellbeing or social equality. Levels of life satisfaction and happiness in Ireland were at much the same level between 1980 and 2004 - stubbornly resistant to the extraordinary economic success achieved in the meantime.

A significant minority of Irish people (17.6 per cent) regard themselves as being poor in terms of subjective wellbeing, with particularly low levels experienced by nearly a third of unemployed people and over a fifth of lone parents. Concerns about the sustainability of current production and consumption patterns, environmental degradation, crime, social cohesion, equitable access to quality healthcare, accountability and standards in public life - all these concerns gnaw away at national wellbeing.

We don't directly measure those concerns in GNP. Neither do we measure the wellsprings of wellbeing - the quality of community, social and intimate relationships (including unpaid caring) and the availability of effective conflict-resolution mechanisms when things go wrong with these relationships.

The competitiveness council, in common with other bodies, needs to make a more robust and spirited argument for the need for expanded measures of national wellbeing that take these issues into account. What does not get measured does not get managed.

Current discussions of national wellbeing could benefit from a deeper understanding of the rapid growth in psychological research on happiness. The council's paper makes a brief reference to some personality and relationship factors that influence wellbeing, for example, the "set-point" theory of happiness. The problem with that theory, particularly in its more extreme form (ie that people adapt to whatever circumstances they find themselves in; get used to any improvements in their lives; come to expect more, and are still not any happier) is that it can lead to a kind of hopelessness about increasing wellbeing. However, that theory has been considerably modified by more recent research which suggests, for example, that up to 40 per cent of individual happiness is created by being engaged in projects that the individual feels are meaningful and achievable.

We have good evidence that overall job satisfaction is significantly related to the satisfaction of deeper human motivations: the need for meaningful connections at work; for autonomy; and the opportunity to use valued skills. We have equally good evidence that positive emotions are associated not just with higher productivity, but with better problem-solving, better team working, more flexibility, experimentation, risk-taking, innovation and creativity - all key components of competitiveness. Linking the individual-organisation economic chain in this way is likely to be translated into positive policies - for example, by adding "the pursuit of excellence" as a core component or vehicle of competitiveness in terms of individual achievement, organisational goals, and national aspiration.

While the NCC's paper teases out the complex relationships between income and happiness, it makes no explicit reference to the current economic downturn and its possible impact on wellbeing. Any threats to personal income will threaten wellbeing. Faced with the threat of loss, people typically immediately assign a higher value to what they might lose. This is a very powerful argument for being careful about the way we are talking about and managing the complex links between national competitiveness, individual income and wellbeing.

The discussion paper misses a golden opportunity to stress again just how interconnected wellbeing is and how its achievement depends on a systems-wide approach. Individual government departments, the social partners and others beaver away at elements of wellbeing. At best, individual wellbeing and happiness are seen as "emergent" properties of good policies. At worst, they are simply without awareness.

What we need to develop is a capacity for systems intelligence and for building new kinds of collaborative partnerships between government, business and civil society. The commitment to improving social as well as economic wellbeing in the current Social Partnership Agreement Towards 2016 is a welcome move in this direction.

While we may not be ready yet to institute Gross National Happiness as a measure of national success, the idea of Gross National Happiness has great visionary and symbolic power.

It has the potential to promote what has been called "the triple bottom line" - People, Planet, Profits - and underlines that they are part of one interconnected system.

Dr Maureen Gaffney is the chairwoman of the National Economic and Social Forum; the NCC's paper, Wellbeing and Competitiveness, is available at