Saturday, March 31, 2012

We measure it how?

       "Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. ... It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile,"  said Robert Kennedy in a 1968 speech -- so the Denver Post reported in an article from the Washington Post feed today.  The article, entitled "Federal government looks to gauge happiness" claims that there are movements afoot in Washington to measure our "gross national happiness."  The team that is trying to come up with the metric is made up of psychologists and economists, including a Nobel laureate in economics.
      On the one hand, I applaud the effort.  Think of all of the other ways we measure our national "health":  Gross National Product; Gross Domestic Product; unemployment statistics; housing starts; durable goods index; per capita income; the Dow Jones or NASDAQ.  All based on economics.  At least here is a different measure that doesn't necessarily bow to the "almighty dollar" (and where did that phrase come from?).
      On the other hand, the fact that economists are (at least according to the article) the only partners with psychologists in developing the means of measurement seems to presuppose that happiness is intimately involved, or entangled, with money.  And I'm not going to argue that having a greater income doesn't make some things a little easier -- but does it necessarily correlate to happiness?
      Earlier this week I heard a snippet of a piece on the radio where the speaker claimed that economics has become the "mono-culture" (or "meta-narrative") of our world--or at least our American culture.  That is, the measure by which we evaluate almost anything these days is an economic measure.  He contrasted that with earlier centuries when religion was the measure, or even more recent years when science was the measure.  Hmmm.  How, then, would science measure happiness?  Or even religion?
      I remember hearing some years ago that Europeans, given the choice between receiving more vacation time or more money took the vacation time.  Americans, given the same choice, chose money.  We'd rather work for more cash, with less time to spend it.   Hmmm. How are we defining, or measuring, our happiness?  Or, even more significant, how are we defining, or measuring, our worth?  
      Are we "worth" the sum total of the minerals, chemicals and liquid that make up our body mass?  Are we "worth" the amount of money we earn over one year, five years, ten years, a lifetime?  Animal rights activist Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights,* claims that all animals -- human and non-human -- have intrinsic, or inherent value, as opposed to our value as instruments or means to an (economic) end.  Whether or not one wants to agree that human and non-human animals have equivalent value, I  side with Regan that we have value simply because we ARE, not because we are homo economicus.  This, I think, is more in keeping with our religious traditions that suggest that we have value because God (however you conceive of the divinity) has decreed it.
      Happiness is good!  And I hope we can find a way of measuring it, and taking it into account when we gauge the health of our society.  If we do, we might make some changes in policy that benefit not only us, but others around us . . . and not primarily because it makes economic sense, but because it's the right thing to do.  



*See a summary of his position here.

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