Gross European Happiness: A Challenge for EU Policymakers in 2014

By Jasper Bergink
posted on February 13, 2014 in Global Development, Leadership, Politics and Society

At the end of January, the place to be for the political chic was the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Politicians, economist and business leaders met to discuss myriad fundamental challenges to our future, from internet governance to global poverty.  The WEF also saw the presentation of a report on “Assessing Global Land Use: Balancing Consumption with Sustainable Supply.

Behind this boring title, the International Resource Panel (IRP), a UN think tank, hid a compelling argument: The demand for food and fuel puts an enormous pressure on our ecosystem. On current trends, between 320 and 849 million hectares of natural land worldwide (the latter number nearly being the size of Brazil) will be converted into cropland in the next 35 years. Such an expansion would harm soil productivity, forest cover and biodiversity. That would be a disaster, thus it is imperative to break the link between resource consumption and economic development.

 Measuring progress

The conclusions are no surprise to ‘beyond GDP’ campaigners, whom have for years pointed out the limitations of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations. GDP measures the total economic value of all goods and services produced within one country in one year. Though a valuable indicator for economic wealth, GDP has its setbacks. It ignores environmental and social costs – such as land degradation, pollution and social tension.

A rich country is not always one that makes people happy or increases their well-being. Yet, GDP growth has become a proxy for progress. Most government policies are based on the idea that growth is necessary. Policymakers seldom ask themselves how their policies impact well-being or happiness at large.

The beyond GDP movement believes governments should use alternative indicators to steer their policies. Gross National Happiness (GNH), developed in the 1970s in the Himalaya kingdom of Bhutan, is the most famous alternative. GNH aims to measure the well-being of Bhutan’s citizens, and is the core element shaping public policy. The index measures 124 variables concerning people’s economic situation, education, health, psychological well-being, time use, and community life. In the last decades, GNH has inspired countries and global organizations worldwide, including the UN, the OECD, France and the UK.

Moving forwards

Despite this the EU has done little to shift its focus to human well-being.  Since the onslaught of the economic crisis, policies have focused primarily on restoring economic growth. While growth clearly helps in avoiding hardship, the EU can learn a lot from the likes of Bhutan. Five years ago, the EU Commission adopted a policy paper, “GDP and beyond. Measuring progress in a changing world.” But it hasn’t acted on this since.

This must change. The EP elections in 2014 offer a great opportunity to reset the system. Following these elections, and the appointment of a new Commission I propose these two institutions follow Bhutan’s approach and take Gross European Happiness (GEH), not GDP, as their guiding principle for economic and social development.

Gross European Happiness

What does GEH mean? In principle, it’s only a change in accounting systems. Our current accounting system is GDP, and we use it to measure economic growth. What you measure defines your frame of reference. Had we measured our well-being as closely as we’re now doing with GDP, Europe would be a different place. Therefore, the first step of the new Commission President should be to create a European version of Bhutan’s GNH Index. A GEH index, based on European values and aiming to track the development over time of Europeans’ objective well-being, must be created to measure progress in a more meaningful way.

EU policies will get a reboot with new MEPs and Commissioners in office later this year. It’s time to convince them of the benefits of GEH. Robert F. Kennedy once said that GDP measures everything in life, except that what makes it worthwhile. EU policymakers should take his words to heart. GEH is the answer.

Jasper Bergink is a member of YPFP Brussels. He works as EU Affairs consultant in Brussels and is an amateur happiness economist in his free time. Jasper edits a weblog entitled ‘For A State of Happiness’ (www.forastateofhappiness) and has delivered a TEDx talk under the same title. He can also be found on twitter: @jbergink

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