Is Happiness Really Priceless?

"Why do you have five kids and a huge mortgage and three cars if you have to compromise everything (including the time you spend with them) in order to pay for it all?"

That's the question Lisa Napoli raised today on Forbes Woman, and she hits a nerve even for those of us who rent an apartment and take public transportation. In the age of overwork, when quality of life can slip away so easily, is a bigger salary the reason to choose one job over another?

In a recession especially, going for the position with higher pay is tempting. But if it drains you in too many ways to count, is the higher paying job really more valuable to you? Can we assign a dollar value to the restorative powers of a vacation with friends, or the satisfaction you feel from having time to pursue interests outside of the office?

The state of Maryland is giving it a try, using something called the "Genuine Progress Indicator,"
or GPI. Turning what "makes sense" in people's life decisions into actual cents, GPI assigns a dollar value to things like housework, volunteering, and commute time, while subtracting from GPI the cost of crime, divorce, and water pollution. The goal of GPI is to look beyond bottom lines to take into account the many disparate economic, environmental and social elements that make up our lives and using that data as an indicator of social progress.

Putting a price tag on these aspects of life may sound a bit mercenary, but as Frank Skinner, Director of Special Projects in the Maryland Department of Labor, explained to Marketplace:

"We're looking at the economic impact of the reduction in amount of discretionary time an individual may have. What we assume is that when folks have leisure they'll engage in productive activities, social events with family, exercise ... but when they have more work commitments what happens is that due to the reduction in leisure time there's an economic value that we can assess from that."

But lawmakers in Maryland aren't the first to take the quality of their citizen's lives into account when measuring prosperity. If you aren't sold on GNP or GPI as be-all, end-all measures of success, try GNH (Gross National Happiness). Napoli points out that the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has attempted to quantify well-being since the 1970s, drawing on Buddhist spiritual values to "offer a subjective reality check to traditional economic indicators by injecting societal and individual happiness." GNH lays out seven categories of wellness: economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political, and GNH is calculated by directly surveying the population on their level of fulfillment in these areas.

Have the people of Bhutan discovered the secret to fulfillment beyond purely economic means? The New York Times reports: "While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world's lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years." Speaking to The Times, Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's home minister and ex-prime minister, said, "We have to think of human well-being in broader terms... material well-being is only one component."

The idea is gaining traction, according to Pavan K Verma, India's ambassador to Bhutan, who told The Telegraph:

"There are limits to the satisfaction economic growth by itself provides... There's a search to look beyond material fulfilment. There are many aspects of social life in countries as diverse as China and the United Kingdom which are falling apart, like family relations and community life. It is becoming an atomised, individualistic world. The Gross National Happiness looks at the quality of life, how much leisure time you have, what's happening in your community, and how integrated you feel with your culture."

The search to measure something beyond material fulfillment as a sign of progress may be coming to a society near you: In New York on July 19, 2011, The UN adopted a resolution entitled, "Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development," a resolution premised on the idea that "the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal" that embodies the spirit of the Millenium Development Goals.

What do you think: Can we can assign a dollar value to happiness? During a recession, it may seem like we can't afford to ask this question, though to that I'd reply: when it comes to our well-being and the well-being of our families in difficult times, can we afford not to?