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The Happiness Ticket

We measure gross domestic product because we believe that the higher our GDP is, the better life will be in our country, and the happier we will be as citizens. The problem is GDP is not a good measurement of well-being.
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We've heard over and over that the Right wants to decrease the size of big government, to encourage America's work ethic by decreasing welfare programs, and to bolster the military to protect national interests. We all know that the Left wants to increase environmental legislation, support individual liberties, and fund social support systems. Both want job creation, economic prosperity, the protection of cherished values, and the enhancement of a way of life.

But to what ultimate ends are those means? To the ends of happiness. We want jobs because being employed makes for healthier, happier families. We want a balanced budget because when we can trust our government we are less anxious about our futures. We want to protect our rights and values because we believe they lead to the behaviors that make us enjoy life more in the long run.

We measure gross domestic product because we believe that the higher our GDP is, the better life will be in our country, and the happier we will be as citizens. The problem is GDP is not a good measurement of well-being. Though America's GDP has increased significantly over the past few decades, our satisfaction with life has not. And if our GDP rises with each suicide, or every time we build a prison, it's clearly not a great well-being indicator. Overall, wealthier countries do have higher well-being than impoverished countries, but there are many poor countries with higher well-being than would be predicted (such as Mexico), and wealthy countries with lower well-being than their wealth would indicate (such as Japan).

More importantly, we can now measure well-being itself. We no longer have to rely on GDP as a proxy. The parliamentary democracy of Bhutan is a leader in this area. Watching as neighboring Himalayan countries succumbed to Western ways, they chose to institute measurement of happiness and well-being among their people as a way to inform the institution of social policies, allocation of government funds, and adoption of laws and systems. Collectively, this is called Gross National Happiness, or GNH. The Bhutanese see GNH as a way to preserve their ancient ways of life and unique cultural and spiritual values. As far back as 1729, Bhutan stipulated in their legal code, "If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist." This was echoed in 1972 when their king declared that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, spurring the current policy and development orientation toward well-being. GNH is based on a premise that human development should incorporate both material and spiritual development. Happiness is viewed as a collective phenomenon, deeply intertwined with one's community and environment.

The nine domains GNH measures are: psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standard, health, education, and good governance. These can be weighed when making policy decisions. For example, building a dam might increase education revenue for an area, but if it is determined that it also decreases psychological well-being in local citizens, planners may choose another option.

By teasing out different domains, Bhutan can kick the tires on policies and programs that are meant to improve life satisfaction -- something our divided government has failed to successfully do. If we are measuring GDP because we believe the higher it is, the happier we will be, why don't we just measure happiness itself, or at least include well-being measures alongside GDP? Bhutan has paved the way, and England has followed suit.

Prime Minister David Cameron has made his people's well-being part of his political legacy. The U.K.'s Office for National Statistics started the National Well-Being Programme, which is focused on what they term "GDP and Beyond." It includes deeper household financial and "human capital" analyses, various quality of life measures such as job and relationship satisfaction and environmental conditions, and self-assessments of well-being by individuals. England now canvasses its population to survey objective and subjective well-being, or SWB, with the hopes that measurement and reporting will activate an "invisible hand" mechanism that will spur localized efforts to improve scores. If certain towns have significantly higher life satisfaction than others, for example, the towns with lower scores could figure out ways to self-correct, just as restaurants that score lower than their neighbors on the Department of Health's ratings find ways to improve their scores in subsequent years.

So in addition to Bhutan, there's now a precedent in the Western world -- but actually, we don't need one. Just as the Right uses the 2nd Amendment as justification for the ownership of personal firearms and the Left uses the 14th Amendment's due process for states to support their pro-choice stance, we collectively rest on an even greater foundation for the enhancement of our well-being: the Declaration of Independence. A few decades after Bhutan decided government existed to create happy citizens, Americans granted ourselves "the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right.

As the richest country in the world, whose personal freedoms are among the most protected anywhere, the time has now come for Americans to fight for our original right to seek out and foster our well-being. Instead of fighting about the means to the agreed-upon ends of happiness -- good relationships, healthy bodies, thriving communities, meaningful work, and positive emotion -- let's start measuring those ends and see what policies really work. That's a ticket I can get behind.

The upcoming documentary The Happiest Place takes us on a journey across Bhutan, exploring the stories of its people and their unique way of life.

For more by Meghan Keener, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.