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What makes people happy?

Richard A. Fuchs / ewJune 9, 2013

A parliamentary inquiry has concluded that quality of life can no longer be judged based on the country's economic performance alone. Now, the question is what other factors need to be considered.

German and Turkish soccer fans cheering together (Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd +++(c) dpa - Report+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Can you say that a country is doing well when the economy is robust, the stock market is climbing and the residents are becoming richer? In particular since the start of the eurozone debt crisis, some Europeans are rethinking the theory that more material wealth means higher quality of life. But at the same time, the things that really matter in life are hard to define.

Over a period of two years, 17 German members of parliament and 17 scientists attempted to find an answer to this puzzle. They have now published a summary of their findings, which reject the idea that gross domestic product (GDP) is an accurate measure of a country's overall success. GDP, as an indicator of economic growth, has been traditionally used in many countries as a benchmark for measuring progress.

More than just money

German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself believes that looking at the country's GDP alone can lead to false conclusions. "Who will look after you if one day you are sick and weak?" asked Merkel, at a gathering of 100 experts from Germany and abroad to debate the commission's findings. "How many people do you actually know who would be happy to do that for you?" She added that quality of life is more than just wealth.

Professor Richard Layard, director of the Wellbeing program at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, agrees with Merkel's position. According to Layard, what especially counts for people is the quality of their relationships - in other words, the family situation and the atmosphere at work and in the local community.

Time for family, pastimes and fun: all this has become a precious commodity in today's economic climate. This is a reason why Karma Tshiteem, a government representative from Bhutan, suggests an alternative course for Germany: instead of measuring life satisfaction based on GDP, why not follow Bhutan's example and introduce the Gross National Happiness scale?

Deutschlandforum Kanzleramt Karma Tshiteem
Tshiteem thinks Germany should adopt Bhutan's modelImage: DW/R.Fuchs

The happiness scale concept covers nine different aspects, including standard of living, health care, education, political leadership and the environment. "But we have another four domains, which are in some sense innovative: psychological well-being, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience and lastly time use," explained Tshiteem.

The magic formula in Bhutan is three times eight: eight hours of work, eight hours of free time and eight hours of sleep. This rule is taken into account when the country's government drafts new laws. It has resulted in the introduction of daily meditation sessions for all school students.

"It's not an activity where you sit like Buddha in the lotus position for hours on end, but rather an activity that takes one to two minutes," said Tshiteem. "Just to introduce this healthy lifestyle activity to our children - to let them experience stillness on a daily basis for one to two minutes."

Schoolgirls in Bhutan Photo: Wilfried Solbach
Schoolchildren in Bhutan do a few minutes of meditation each dayImage: Wilfried Solbach Germany

Different sources of happiness indicators

However, Ben Warner from Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (JCCI), a citizens' think tank in Florida, believes that no government can dictate what is good for the people. Since 1985, JCCI has been issuing its annual Quality of Life Progress Report for the city of Jacksonville. Its data comes not only from official sources, but is also gathered by local residents.

Warner said that JCCI wants people to decide for themselves what is important to them, adding that for this reason no well-being or progress index can be compiled without the people's input. According to Warner, bringing people together and letting them collect feedback and decide what course should be taken makes a huge difference.

The result of the German inquiry is not quite so grassroots-oriented. The commission agrees with international happiness experts that governments will have to pay close attention to many indicators in the future, points out Professor Christoph M. Schmidt, chairperson of the government's council of economic advisors and a member of the commission. "You cannot recognize the complexity of life and at the same time hope to represent it with a single number that will make everyone happy," he added.

He explained that instead of concentrating exclusively on improving economic performance, environmental and social factors also need to be taken into account in the future when measuring progress. The commission has named this kind of model W³.

"We have 10 key indicators that cover the economic, social and environmental categories," said Schmidt. "We also have a method of drawing attention to the problem areas."

The experts are in the process of starting a dialogue in society on the topic of quality of life, as well as compiling detailed reports on the development of living conditions, income and work stress, as well as community structure and well-being. There are also plans to establish a new public institute in Germany for implementing the resulting improvement suggestions. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel has promised to continue driving research into happiness - at first, by sending researchers out into the world to explore the topic further.