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Measuring GNH (“Gross National Happiness”)

This evening, when I fin­ished clean­ing up the kitchen after our fam­ily din­ner, I glanced at the cur­rent issue of the Econ­o­mist. The cover fea­tures this head­line: the Joy of Grow­ing Old (or why life begins at 46). It’s a light read, as this so-influential mag­a­zine goes, but nice to con­tem­plate if you’re, say, 50 years old and won­der­ing about the future.

The article’s the­sis is this: Although as peo­ple move towards old age they lose things they treasure — vitality, men­tal sharp­ness and looks — they also gain what peo­ple spend their lives pur­su­ing: Happiness.

Fig. 1 (above): “A snap­shot of the age dis­tri­b­u­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being in the United States,” Stone, et al: PNAS, May 2010 (y-axis: “WB” stands for well-being.)

Young adults are gen­er­ally cheer­ful, accord­ing to the Econ­o­mist’s mys­te­ri­ous author or authors. Things go down­hill until midlife, and then they pick up again. There’s a long dis­cus­sion in the arti­cle on pos­si­ble rea­sons for the U-shaped curve of self-reported well-being. Most plau­si­ble among the expla­na­tions offered, which might be kind of sad except that in real­ity (as opposed to ideals) I think it’s gen­er­ally a good thing, is the “death of ambi­tion, birth of accep­tance.” The con­cept is explained: “Maybe peo­ple come to accept their strengths and weak­nesses, give up hop­ing to become chief exec­u­tive or have a pic­ture shown in the royal Acad­emy…” And this yields contentedness.

Some­where in the midst of the piece, the authors quote Pete Town­shend of the Who, who when he was 20 wrote the lyrics: “Hope I die before I get old.” The lead­ing guitar-smasher has a blog (which seems to have migrated from Blog­ger to a Who fan club site that requires reg­is­tra­tion). The Econ­o­mist reports he’s express­ing him­self with appar­ent delight, now in his mid-60s. The rage is over — he’s mellowed.

Of course I know as a doc­tor and as a per­son who knows other peo­ple, that not every­one fol­lows the same emo­tional tra­jec­tory in life. Still, it’s a nice con­cept and a cute graph. Another seri­ous lim­i­ta­tion is that not every­one gets to grow old.

There’s some happy, econ-light thrown in to the story:

…This curi­ous find­ing has emerged from a new branch of eco­nom­ics that seeks a more sat­is­fac­tory mea­sure than money of human well-being. Con­ven­tional eco­nom­ics uses money as a proxy for utility—the dis­mal way in which the dis­ci­pline talks about hap­pi­ness. But some econ­o­mists, uncon­vinced that there is a direct rela­tion­ship between money and well-being, have decided to go to the nub of the mat­ter and mea­sure hap­pi­ness itself.

These ideas have pen­e­trated the pol­icy arena, start­ing in Bhutan, where the con­cept of Gross National Hap­pi­ness (GNH) shapes the plan­ning process. All new poli­cies have to have a GNH assess­ment, sim­i­lar to the environmental-impact assess­ment com­mon in other countries.

Mea­sur­ing GNH? That’s a fab­u­lous new para­me­ter we might fol­low, not just for the holidays.


*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

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