Gross National… Happiness?

John Locke wrote that the “chief end” of citizens “putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property,” (Locke). The protection of citizens’ property is a central focus to Locke’s view of the social contract. Locke proclaimed that people seek government for “the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates,” (Locke). Our constitution (which was highly influenced by Locke), famously includes a similar phrase, with one important difference. Instead of “estates,” it reads “the pursuit of happiness.” But which does our government focus on, happiness or economics?

Gross National Product (GNP) tracks the physical output of a country and is the most widely used measurement of national progress. Bhutan has introduced a new measure of prosperity: Gross National Happiness (GNH), designed to track how happy the average citizen is. The United States of America has the highest GNP per capita. You might think we therefore have the highest GNH, although this is not the case. As Figure 1 points out, there is a surprisingly low correlation between GNP and happiness. As Figure 2 illustrates, American’s median household incomes have risen over the past thirty years, but their happiness has not.

Figure 1 (Revkin)

Figure 2 (Revkin)

The United State’s Government should change its focus from improving GNP to GNH. GNP measures raw stuff produced, but ignores crucial factors to a prosperous nation such as equality and health. While America has the highest GNP per capita in the world, it has striking inequality and an expensive health system that leaves over 40 million Americans without coverage.

Locke viewed citizens as willing to form a commonwealth for the protection of their economic well-being. Government cannot effectively approach policy with the priority being GNH instead of GNP, until GNH first becomes the priority of the country’s citizens. Two examples of policies that would require a value change of Americans to prioritize Americans’ happiness are health care and taxation. American’s generally resist the individual mandate of the recent Health Care Bill, because they feel it infringes individual freedoms. However, enforcement of this individual mandate is necessary to keep health insurance costs from rising for everyone. We must view government as something to maximize the well-being of the whole nation. This means sacrificing the liberty of being able to decide whether or not to purchase health care for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Additionally, this would include the rich supporting a progressive tax system in which their sacrifices are likely to provide more happiness to fellow, less fortunate Americans. In America, a value change is necessary, we need to make the pursuit of happiness our true goal for all citizens.

What do you think, where should our priorities lie as a government, and as a people? Why?


Locke, John. “Of the Ends of Political Society and Government,” in The Second Treatise of Civil Government. 1690.

Revkin, Andrew. “A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom,” NY Times. Accessed Fri Nov 4th.



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2 Comments on “Gross National… Happiness?”

  1. Kunal Saxena Says:

    I understand where you are coming from. However, using GNH is a very abstract topic. The biggest question the comes about is how do we measure happiness? Each person has different mediums of happiness and can greatly vary. I feel the GNP can be quantified and is a good indicator about the country as whole. Granted, there are some factors that GNP doesn’t take into account; inequality. However, this can also be quantified. Combining all this date and assessing it can give us a better understanding of a country’s well- being rather than an abstract concept of GNH.

  2. alexwillard Says:

    I think you answer your own question, in regards to which should be the primary focus GNP or GNH, when you call for health care and a utilitarian sacrifice.

    “American’s generally resist the individual mandate of the recent Health Care Bill, because they feel it infringes individual freedoms. However, enforcement of this individual mandate is necessary to keep health insurance costs from rising for everyone.”

    You can see the argument that arises out of this. Which is greater means of happiness health care or the perceived infringement of rights? It is almost impossible to measure. You cannot rely on self evaluation surveys because you never know if those are correct as to what people actually think or just what people want to fill out. Like the commenter before me GNH is way too abstract as a means of measuring. I believe happiness is important but our nation should focus on the GNP and other quantifiable and accurately measured things, not the abstract.

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