Happiness versus the “Gross Misery Index”

It seems the happiness bandwagon just keeps rolling blissfully along, undeterred by the ominous dark clouds that are converging on us from every point on the horizon – from natural disasters to man-made tragedies. 

The United Nations now publishes an annual World Happiness Report, and it shows that the overall trend since the depths of the Great Recession, in 2008-2009, continues to improve.  By the U.N.’s criteria, the world is getting happier.  Likewise, the Gallup polling organization, which does an ambitious annual survey across some 140 countries of people’s subjective sense of well-being, reports that its metric is also rising.  Not to be outdone, the OECD now has a Better Life Index.  The New Economics Foundation in the U.K. has a Happy Planet Index.  And the tiny country of Bhutan is expanding its pioneering Gross National Happiness Index (based on an extensive survey of 6000 households each year) to include organizations that do business in that country.

In a recent article on this subject in the National Geographic, happiness researcher and author, Dan Buettner, used three countries that have been long-time leaders in cross-national well-being surveys -- Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore – to illuminate what the concept of happiness means.   What these states have in common, Buettner reported, is economic security, a sense of purpose, and personal lives that minimize stress and “maximize joy.”

Economic security!  That is the root of the problem.  Buettner himself gives the game away.  As he puts it, the very concept of happiness/well-being rests on the assumption that “basic needs are covered so that people can pursue their passions at work and leisure.”

In other words, the various happiness indexes are designed by, and for, and about those who are economically “secure”.  They also measure only an average.  So, if happiness is increasing for the fortunate few in a society, it may tell us little or nothing about the degree of economic, social, and political insecurity for the rest of the population.   What these subjective measures of well-being do, in effect, is mask an objective reality out there that is bad and getting worse for a great many people, even as the rich get richer.  Indeed, there are some questions about the sampling methodologies uses in these surveys.  Do they tend to undercount the poor and the alienated?

Some hints about the darker side of the picture can be found even in the most recent U.N. World Happiness Report, where, despite an improving global economy, some 11 “Western” nations have slipped backward over the past few years, including the United States, Japan, and Greece (no surprise).

Perhaps what is needed to tell the other half of the story and help balance the perception scale is a Gross Misery Index (GMI) that would focus on measuring the underlying biological, social, and political realities in each country.  It would measure the degree to which the basic needs of the population are being satisfied.  It’s not hard to guess which countries might rank near the top of that scale (most miserable) – Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Burundi, the Philippines, Turkey, Palestine, Libya, and South Sudan, to name a few.  Even some depressed areas in “happier” countries, like the United States, Great Britain, and France might get a high GMI score.

In the end, if our happiness/well-being absolutely depends on the prerequisite of meeting our objective basic needs, and if there are currently serious deficiencies in most countries, then it seems that it might be helpful for us to put the horse before the cart, rather than the other way around.  Happiness is not the problem.   





Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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