The Pursuit of Happiness

Taking a cue from a small Buddhist kingdom, Tom Barefoot, A68, urges governments to rethink how they measure progress

illustration of Statue of Liberty with bouquet of flowers

Quick, what makes you happy? If you said economic growth, you are in the minority. When most of us think about what gives us joy in life, it’s things like spending time with friends and family, enjoying the outdoors and volunteering for a cause. And yet none of these things are contained in official measures of progress such as Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product.

For decades, countries around the world have measured progress in purely economic terms: growth and consumption. That provides a skewed view of development, says Tom Barefoot, A68, co-coordinator of Gross National Happiness USA, an organization that aims to change the focus of government from increasing consumption to increasing well-being—and in a few short years has already started to change hearts and minds in state and municipal governments.

The idea really isn’t far-fetched. After all, the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence extolled the right to the pursuit of happiness. The focus on growth didn’t come until much later. “Gross National Product came about from a need during the Second World War to count production,” says Barefoot. “But GNP has never been intended as a measure of progress—that’s a total misuse of the figure. It does not count a number of very important things.”

Hurricane Katrina, for example, trashed the Gulf Coast, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of property, and yet it caused GNP to increase because of all of the growth in construction in the area. “Another good example is divorce,” says Barefoot. “Now you need two refrigerators and two cars, so GNP goes up. But is the world better off?”

Five years ago, a friend introduced Barefoot to the concept of Gross National Happiness, the official metric for progress in the Himalayan country of Bhutan. Since 1971, the tiny Buddhist kingdom has used the concept of GNH alongside GNP to measure progress in nine domains, including health, community vitality and psychological well-being.

In 2010, Bhutan expanded the concept, surveying the populace to create a GNH Index, which found that 41 percent of the population qualified as “happy,” meaning they had achieved “sufficiency” in six out of the nine categories. But even those who were unhappy were sufficient, on average, in five domains. And more importantly, the index gives the country the data to identify which classes of citizen are less happy—including women, rural dwellers and farmers—and what is making them unhappy, in order to better focus development efforts.

“Happiness metrics looked to me like a way to have a real discussion about what people want in their lives,” says Tom Barefoot. Photo: George Soules“Happiness metrics looked to me like a way to have a real discussion about what people want in their lives,” says Tom Barefoot. Photo: George Soules
Now the concept seems to be catching on more broadly. In 2011, the United Nations passed a resolution to study the matter, and countries from Canada to New Zealand have adopted some of its principles in their own governments.

In the United States, both Vermont and Maryland have recently adopted a measure called Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that uses production data similar to GDP, but discounts growth due to rebuilding from natural disasters and includes the value of volunteerism and housework and the cost of lost leisure time due to longer work hours.

Barefoot regards such steps as a sign of the growing importance of GNH. “Five years ago, I attended a conference of economists and no one knew anything about it. Now, two states have formally adopted well-being indicators.”

Money Doesn’t Equal Happiness

In government, that pace of progress is lightning fast, says Barefoot, who for the past 30 years has viewed bureaucracy close up as president of a computer networking company serving government clients. Before that, Barefoot was for 12 years a board member and president of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy body.

But over the years, he’s become increasingly disillusioned by the polarization of American politics into special interest groups, each pushing its own agenda. “It’s grown to the point where the two sides in politics can’t even talk to each other,” he says.

Once he discovered GNHUSA, he latched onto the concept as a way to create a third space to move beyond unproductive political infighting. Now he helps plan conferences on GNH, coordinates the activities of various working groups within the organization and implements happiness surveys in his home state of Vermont.

“In stark contrast to the government gridlock we see all around us, happiness metrics looked to me like a way to have a real discussion about what people want in their lives,” Barefoot says.

What makes people happy? Not wealth, according to the latest research. A study in 2010 by two Princeton researchers, including the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, found that money does increase well-being, but only up to a point. “In the U.S., that’s about $75,000 a year,” says Barefoot. “After that point, happiness levels out, and you can’t keep becoming happier by consuming more.”

One thing that does make people happy is altruism. In studies by the Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and the University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn—authors of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending—students were given $20 and told to use it either on themselves or on others. By the end of the day, those who spent it on others reported more overall happiness. Researchers at the University of Zurich last year even found that a part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction is primed for thinking about others’ needs.

What would make people happier? In poll after poll, people say their work is out of balance with the rest of their life, and that they don’t have enough time to spend with their friends and family.

One recent Pew poll, for example, found that 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads found it “very” or “somewhat” difficult to balance work and family. The United States is one of the stingiest countries when it comes to vacation time and other rights such as maternity leave and family sick leave—ranking dead last in paid leave time in a 2013 survey of developed nations by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“Everyone feels there are issues with time balance,” Barefoot says. “A lot of help could come from government policy in maintaining that balance between life and work.”

The Metrics of Happiness

Back in 2011, the Happiness Alliance in Seattle released its own national online survey (take it at to measure what really matters—including mental and material well-being, work-life balance and satisfaction with community, environment and government.

Barefoot sees such measurements as an important first step not only in raising awareness about the concept of well-being as opposed to material growth, but also in identifying areas on which government should focus in order to increase happiness. Those metrics “start to give us a framework to show whether we are making progress on a set of goals,” he says.

It was thanks to GNHUSA’s efforts that Vermont passed its 2012 law including the use of the Genuine Progress Indicator in setting priorities for the state. As part of the law, the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics is tracking GPI over time and constructing a “development map” to show where health and environmental development is needed alongside economic development. In the future, the state plans to use this data in allocating budget spending.

Maryland adopted the GPI as an official policy tool through executive action by Governor Martin O’Malley in 2013, and a number of cities and towns are pursuing their own efforts in GNH. The city of Santa Monica, California, for example, recently implemented a “well-being survey,” polling residents on their concerns, including financial stress, work-life imbalance and worries about safety. The city plans on using the data to create a “well-being index” that can be used to integrate city services.

In Tufts’ own backyard, Somerville was the first city in the country to conduct a household survey of happiness. The city used data from the survey to change government priorities—for example, by allocating more money to the Department of Traffic and Parking in response to citizen concerns. In 2013, the city updated its SomerStat project with a new mobile app that uses GPS data to measure exactly how happy residents feel at different places and times in the city.

Barefoot and his fellow happiness adherents take pride in the pace of these accomplishments just a few years after introducing the concept of GNH on a national level. As the idea spreads, they aim to make happiness as ubiquitous a concept as, say, sustainability, cutting across both personal awareness and government policy to create a broader way of measuring and determining our priorities. If they succeed, then one day soon governments won’t have to guess at how happy their constituents are, or how to make them happier.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based writer.

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