Tim Brodhead is one of Canada's intellectual leaders and most accomplished activists. He is also President and CEO of the JW McConnell Family Foundation and co-founder of Social Innovation Generation (SiG). Here is his response to the question: What would you like to become more visible in 2011? You can also Download Becoming Visible - the complete collection of 58 essays including Tim's.
Dethroning the Gross Domestic Product
Can money buy happiness? If so, we must be getting happier. After all, Canadaʼs Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose during the 2000-2008 period from $22,580 per capital to $26,200, adjusted for inflation – almost 20 percent. And yet we donʼt seem happier, and polls confirm that Canadians, despite our relative affluence, are far from the top ranking when compared with other countries, even ʻpoorerʼ ones.
Well, of course we know that GDP simply measures the total of goods and services produced, whether they are beneficial or damaging in nature. A disastrous flood boosts GDP because of all the reconstruction that follows more oil sands development is an unmitigated plus, and so on. GDP growth says nothing about our well-being or happiness.
In 2011, I look for GDP to come closer to being dethroned from its commanding perch as sole indicator of national well-being. The search for alternative measures is well underway. The best-known of these is perhaps Bhutanʼs concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a term coined in 1972 by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk who wanted to measure the true quality of life in his country by including social progress and spiritual values, not just economic indicators. GNH incorporates sustainable development, cultural values, environmental conservation and good governance in a holistic approach that would not be very different from how many, perhaps most, Canadians would measure our own national well-being.
For the next several years GNH was regarded as eccentrically and endearingly Bhutanese, and derided by economists. However research to make it more rigorous and quantitative has directed attention less to measuring happiness, than to the factors that create it: levels of disease, education, opportunity; the state of the environment; enjoyment of art and culture, etc. The UNʼs Human Development Report, launched in 1990, began to apply this holistic yardstick across countries, with increasing sophistication over the years. (Canada was very happy to acknowledge its status as #1 in the world for many years but pays less attention now as we slip steadily down the ranks of OECD member countries.)
In the past few years a number of competing standards have emerged: the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which distinguishes between worthwhile growth and uneconomic growth (depletion of natural capital, cleaning up pollution, the cost of crime, recovery from disasters, etc). Ronald Colmanʼs work in Atlantic Canada, and the Quality of Life Index now housed at the University of Waterloo are two examples, but there are others in Europe and some American states. Community Foundations of Canadaʼs Vital Signs reports, now compiled and issued annually by many local community foundations, is garnering increasing attention as a snapshot of community health and an early warning of trends and emerging problems, as well as improvements.
The incoming UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, surprised many this year when he committed 2 million pounds to a project to devise an index of the UKʼs national happiness by 2012. The Office of National Statistics will lead consultations to identify areas that matter to most peopleʼs sense of well-being. On a different plane altogether, Facebook plans to create a Gross National Happiness Index by adding up negative and positive words on billions of messages, and by subtracting negative from positive on a daily, monthly and yearly basis (one not altogether surprising finding already is that most Americans are happier in 2009 than they were in 2008 – and that Thanksgiving and Christmas Days show big ʻspikesʼ in their sense of well-being).
Does it matter if we replace our exclusive reliance on GDP by a more inclusive indicator? Yes, if it reveals underlying issues like economic inequality, environmental deterioration, cultural impoverishment and the impact they have on our mental, physical and social well-being. As Robert Kennedy said almost a half century ago, GDP measures everything except "that which makes life worthwhile".
Isnʼt it time to focus on what counts for Canadians, rather than just what we have been counting?
My original post on Tim can be accessed here.
Please share and distribute to your friends and through your various networks, websites etc. I think you will agree – these are too good to keep to ourselves.