Insight & Analysis

Out with GDP, in with happiness?

Published: Oct 2022

Measures of success focus on material and economic gains, but one approach quantifies happiness and wellbeing instead. A recent book argues that the principles for measuring Gross National Happiness can be applied to business and create organisations with a culture of happiness.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the go-to measure of a country’s success, the indicator of size and the growth in an economy. But as the late US politician Robert Kennedy is quoted as saying, the problem with GDP is that “it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

An alternative to the fixation on material gains is a measure that accounts for happiness and wellbeing instead. This is the approach that Bhutan took when it deemed Gross National Happiness (GNH) as more important than GDP. And now the former programme director of that initiative argues the same principles can be applied to organisations to create a culture of happiness.

This kind of approach is in line with the growing trend of positive psychology that focuses on an individual’s strengths, potential and wellbeing and has emphasised practices such as gratitude and mindfulness. This is all very well, but broader more structural changes are necessary to make a meaningful difference. Societies, countries, schools – and companies – all need to create the right conditions for people to lead fulfilling and happy lives. This is the focus of the recently-published A Culture of Happiness: How to Scale Up Happiness from People to Organisations by Tho Ha Vinh.

In the book Dr Tho argues that organisations need a north star or guiding principle, and this involves changing what an organisation pays attention to. “What we measure is what we pay attention to. If we measure only economic data, that is what guides our choices and our actions,” Dr Tho writes.

The book gives an overview of the approaches to finding meaning and purpose, as well as explaining the approach that Bhutan took in viewing GNH as more important than GDP. From there, the principles of GNH are laid out and how they can be applied to organisations.

And happiness isn’t about pleasure-seeking hedonism. Rather, it is the other Greek type of happiness – eudaimonia – which is about purpose, meaning and serving a higher calling.

With GNH as a new paradigm, there are nine principles for a country – or an organisation – to follow. They are 1) psychological wellbeing 2) health 3) time use 4) education 5) cultural diversity and resilience 6) community vitality 7) good governance 8) ecological diversity and resilience, and 9) living standards.

When applying this to an organisation, there are two parts: having a new way of measuring the development of an organisation and then also the development of happiness skills.

For example, in the workplace, employees could practise mindfulness to reduce stress. But Dr Tho warns, “We should not forget that the causes of stress might be related to objective situations that need to be addressed, such as toxic management practices, gender bias, ethnic prejudices or unfair working conditions. Putting the responsibility on the individual alone without addressing these issues would be not only unfair but even counterproductive, as it might delay the necessary change”.

He makes the comparison with a sniper becoming more accurate with focus on their skill, but is their killing justified in the first place? Similarly, there’s no point practising mindfulness to make people sharper at doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

There are companies that have already implemented the approach of Gross National Happiness and have become more thoughtful in their purpose. One such company is Thailand’s B.Grimm Group, an infrastructure developer, which has incorporated values of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. And ultimately, the organisation has a purpose that is broader than seeking profits. Or, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, it measures that which makes life worthwhile.

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