As a co-founder of GNHUSA and one of the organizers of last month’s conference, “Happiness and Wellbeing: Building a National Movement,” I obviously endorse the efforts to adopt a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm. And I have more than a basic understanding of why what we choose to measure can exert such a powerful influence in our lives.
Nonetheless, I felt a real jolt of personal understanding during Gwen Colman’s keynote speech on happiness and public policy at the ccnference. Gwen, who developed the Youth Program at GPIAtlantic (a non-profit research and education organization that created a Genuine Progress Index for Nova Scotia), was contrasting what gets counted under a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) paradigm with what doesn’t get counted — and, therefore, doesn’t count. First, she showed a slide of baby getting a bottle. According to Wikipedia, the worldwide baby formula industry is worth an estimated $7.9 billion industry. Certainly, there are many valid reasons why babies are fed bottles, and it is a blessing under any metric that formula is available when needed. In any case, plenty of money gets exchanged, so bottle feeding counts.
Next up was a slide of a mom breastfeeding her baby. How much money gets exchanged in that transaction? Ergo, how much is breastfeeding worth according to GDP measures? Well, not quite nothing because there are nursing bras and breast pumps to be purchased. But the actual act of breastfeeding? That’s worth nothing. Zero. Zilch. It doesn’t count.
This struck me personally because my daughter is currently a breastfeeding mom. Watching my granddaughter thrive as a breast fed baby, I have no doubt that a GNH paradigm would enthusiastically endorse breastfeeding children to give them the best possible start in life. But in our GDP-dominated culture, my daughter has sometimes run into flack and disapproval when nursing her hungry or cranky daughter in public. Despite laws in all 50 states supporting the rights of moms to breastfeed their children, many moms feel a kind of shaming pressure to hide this basic act of love and nurturing. In January 2014, even a Victoria’s Secret store (of all places!) banned a mom from breastfeeding inside the store. Perhaps if breastfeeding “counted” — ie, was included as something valuable in GDP measures — the public might be more supportive of this fundamental wellbeing activity. This example underscores the pervasiveness of GDP thinking throughout our lives, and therefore the importance of GNH work on a deeply personal level. Not all interventions to support greater happiness and wellbeing can or should happen at the governmental level. Some need to happen in our own hearts and minds.
As an experiment, I spent one day last week examining my own activities, with an eye toward what adds to my wellbeing and what counts under a GDP metric — you know, the kind of “positive” NPR is referring to when it relentlessly reports whether the GDP has gone up or down. The GDP does not care at all whether money is spent for a positive or a negative — whether it’s a baby shower or a nuclear weapon, the only good here is money. So how did my day stack up, GDP-wise? Not so good. GNH-wise, though, it was a pretty wonderful day.
I began my day with a couple cups of coffee — good for the GDP, and, as far as I’m concerned, good for my happpiness, too.
Next came my daily meditation. Because I like to play the Tibetan bells on YouTube in the background while I meditate, which means a little increase on the electricity bill which I’ll have to pay later, that was ever so slightly good for the GDP. Plus I like to light a stick of incense — another wee boon for GDP. But the bulk of my activity — a walking meditation around the house and out on the sunny deck — was cash free, and enormously good for my personal GNH. Further, I’ll wager that my regular meditation practice may well save me money on medical care over the long term, as meditation may reduce the severity, or delay the onset of, expensive chronic conditions. So really, my meditation practice as a whole is a negative on the GDP scale.
As I walked on the deck, I passed my husband’s laundry flapping in the breeze.
Using the sun and the wind to dry laundry is 100% worthless in the ruthlessly focused GDP metric. Never mind that using a clothesline instead of an electric or gas dryer conserves energy and therefore does not contribute to climate change and other environmental devastation. Never mind, either, that hanging laundry involves some physical effort, which is good for our health. And then there’s that fresh air smell in clothes that have been hanging outside … worthless.
Indeed, in our GDP world, many jurisdictions and condo associations actually see clotheslines as a negative, and forbid them. Vermont, I am proud to say, passed a law a few years back barring any such prohibitions. In a world of pervasive GNH thinking, perhaps such laws wouldn’t be necessary, because we would be more aware of, and appreciative of, actions that are good for people and the planet.
Next up for me was my morning walk on the three mile loop around my neighborhood, a walk that looks like this:
… but counts for nothing, according to the GDP metric. If I had chosen instead to take a scenic drive, burning fossil fuels and contributing to climate change, I might well have had to buy gas. In GDP terms, that would have been a much better choice.
As I walked, on an admittedly exceptionally beautiful June day, I was struck by the profusion of ferns and wildflowers — so, so beautiful and so, so worthless if all that matters is the exchange of money. I took a few photos:
Ever-cheerful daisies …
Taking the time to stop and savor these beauties and so much else that nature generously displays for us each summer is a tremendously valuable personal happiness booster. And even though I’m not a naturalist, I know these flowers are important in the eco-system — important for bees, for birds, for life in general. But the money is to be found in the flower industry, not out here by the road side in my back yard. Oh, no, cut flowers often have to travel long distances to arrive at their destinations. Once again, according to Wikipedia: many flowers are “grown far from their point of sale … (including) roses in Ecuador and Colombia, mainly for the US market, and production in Kenya and Uganda for the European market. Some countries specialize in especially high value products, such as orchids from Singapore and Thailand.”
Did somebody say, fossil fuels? Peak oil? Climate change? But, hey, that’s a lot of money being exchanged — and that’s what matters, right?
With the worthless wildflowers on my mind, I took a look around my garden when I got home. There were some annuals, some pansies that I had planted a few weeks earlier, definitely adding to the GDP:
But even the flowers we plant have a limited GDP value. Perennials only matter the year they are bought. No matter how beautiful their blooms may be in succeeding years, they, too, become worthless — even in the hands of my neighbor Bev who coaxes these lush poppies and many other plants to bloom again and again and again:
Okay, I won’t go on in detail about my whole day. I did spend time writing (and playing Scrabble) on my computer (electricity again) and I received a check from a client. Both of these experiences were happy making for me in terms of working toward goals and having a purpose in life. And both were of some value to Vermont’s GDP — not much, but still they count.
I can’t remember any more if I went swimming that day, but it’s certainly possible. We live just across the road from one of Vermont’s many ponds and lakes, and often swim or kayak in this beautiful body of water:
Since there is no money exchanged when we dive into these waters, the GDP is not impressed with these activities. Worse: since swimming and kayaking help keep us healthy, and that once again might mean less money spent on health care over the long term, this is another negative on the GDP side of the ledger.
Of course, if we paid money to go to a swimming pool, that would be good, GDP-wise. And it would probably also be good, on a personal GNH scale– especially in the many, many months when outdoor swimming is not an option in Vermont.
Similarly, I love both libraries and book stores, especially our local independent bookstores. I mention this combination because the final item of note for me on the day I paid special attention to my GDP footprint was a Facebook posting from one of my sisters. She was alerting her neighbors that funding for their local library might be cut so drastically that their library would be forced to close. Certainly libraries have value in GDP terms — payroll, building costs, buying books and magazine subscriptions, etc. But all those books being borrowed at no cost? Worthless! I mean, sharing for heaven’s sake — how does that help the economy?
In a GNH world, would we be shutting down libraries?
Those are just a few snippets from one summer day. I know I could — and hopefully, will — examine my life and my choices much more thoroughly. What about you? What is truly worthwhile in your life? What brings you happiness, and increases your wellbeing? How much of your life is needlessly tied up by what a GDP paradigm says is important and worthwhile?
As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we want to see happen in the world. Want to see a shift to a gross national happiness metric on a large scale? Perhaps we should all start by picking some wildflowers.