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[Op-Ed] Happiness Index Instead of GDP

Posted September. 16, 2009 05:50,   


Richard Easterlin, an economics professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is known for studying the relations between income and happiness. Since 1946, he has surveyed 30 countries to find out what factors affect people’s happiness. His study has found that income levels have a proportional correlation to happiness to a certain point in every country. After income levels reach a certain point, however, the degree of happiness does not grow even if income increases. This is called the Easterlin paradox.

This paradox is found everywhere. If income raises happiness, people in the United States and Japan should be happier than those in Cuba and Bangladesh. Survey results, however, tell a different story. From 1971 to 1991, the average American income rose 83 percent, but the number of people who felt happy declined. According to the happiness index by Britain’s New Economics Foundation and the World Map of Happiness by the University of Leicester of England, Vanuatu, a poor island country in the Pacific, and Denmark were the happiest countries in 2007.

The late U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy effectively summed up the limitation of the income index by saying gross national product is a means to measure everything except things that make life valuable. GDP measures a nation’s economic activities but has been blamed for failing to reflect external factors or quality of life, such as environmental degradation. There is no alternative to GDP, however, because it is hard to gauge individual happiness.

Nobel Prize winners in economics Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen submitted a recommendation for a new economic indicator to reflect happiness and wellbeing to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who pledged the inclusion of the indicator in his presidential campaign. The recommendation urges a change in the way GDP is calculated, creation of an index to measure happiness, and inclusion of economic and financial stability. Sarkozy will discuss the new indicator with world leaders at next week’s G20 financial summit in Pittsburgh. Though Korea is the world’s 13th-largest economy in GDP, its people’s happiness level ranked below 100th in surveys conducted in 2007 by New Economics Foundation and the University of Leicester. How Korea will fare with the new economic indicator is attracting curiosity.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)