Let’s go beyond GDP and Start Measuring What Matters to our Well-being and Happiness
Between 1995 and 1998 I was working as a senior economic advisor to former Alberta Treasurer Jim Dinning as part of a team at Alberta Treasury that implemented Alberta’s new government accountability system under Dinning’s mantra of ‘what gets measured, gets managed.’ We called that initiative Measuring Up.
It was a good start to begin measuring what matters most to the quality of life of Albertans. But we failed to ask Albertans about what they loved about living and working in our province. Therefore we weren’t sure we were measuring what actually mattered to the well-being and happiness of Albertans. We never asked their perceptions and expectations of their financial well-being, their health, their trust of neighbour, their perceptions of government, and their perceptions of our natural environment. In short, we were not measuring what matters most to the ‘genuine’ well-being and progress of Alberta.
In May of 2012, my colleagues, Robert McGarvey, Bill Craig and Dominic Mishio, set out with a mission to ‘measure what matters’ to well-being of individuals, enterprises, communities and nations using a new well-being-based measurement and accountability system we call Genuine Wealth.
We believe that changing the way we measure and manage our progress should be focused on a well-being-bottom-line going beyond the current short-term focus on GDP and quarterly profits. After all, life is more than simply making money. It’s about living a life of purpose and meaning; feeling a sense of flourishing, joy and hope.
A municipality, a province or state or nation could completely deplete and degrade all its natural resources and undermine the spirit of its human social capital while posting positive GDP growth.
We need a new accounting system and indicators of well-being that help individuals, businesses, communities and nations measure their genuine wealth –natural, human, social and manufactured capital assets that are the corner stones of human well-being.
In 1968 Robert Kennedy critiqued the Gross National Product (GNP) as a flawed measure of progress; he noted that the GNP measures everything (in money terms) ‘except that which makes worth while.’ Our work is motivated by Kennedy’s challenge; to develop a new system for ‘measuring what matters’ in terms of our well-being and happiness.
For over 60 years, we have been using an accounting system for measuring economic progress called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that tracks all money being spent on goods and services in the economy. This might be a good accounting of cash flow but it fails to measure the actual things that makes life worth living (including our happiness and state of well-being), as Robert Kennedy noted in 1968 when critiquing the GDP.
What is genuine wealth? Genuine Wealth is a model for measuring and managing the overall well-being and happiness of a community or organization by explicitly accounting for the assets (human, social, natural, and manufactured or physical) of a community or organization that are linked to individual and societal values and aspirations for a good life.
Genuine means to live authentically, in accordance to the values that make life worth living. If our measures of progress and performance align with what we value most, then we have a hope of ‘measuring what matters’ to our well-being.
Wealth is much more than financial and material things; the word comes from the 13th Old English meaning ‘the conditions of well-being.’ Therefore Genuine Wealth is about accounting for the things that truly make life worthwhile.
Measuring what matters most to the happiness and well-being of people’s lives will require not only new metrics of progress but a new economic system that focuses less on growth and more on improving well-being.
This new economy of well-being and happiness was proposed by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley on April 2, 2012 at a special UN meeting in New York. Bhutan has adopted the Gross National Happiness measure of progress as an alternative to the GDP. Bhutan is the first nation in the world to have adopted the Gross National Happiness measure of progress.
Genuine Wealth is a new well-being-based performance measurement system that I believe will become the international standard for measuring and managing the real well-being of communities and nations.
In 2001, I led a team of economists in the research and development of the Alberta Genuine Progress Index (GPI), a new accounting system that measured the changes in economic, social and environmental well-being, using 51-indicators of well-being. We showed that between 1961-1999, while Alberta’s GDP increased by over 400 percent (4.4 percent per annum) the Alberta GPI Well-being Index declined by almost 22% (0.5 percent per annum decline). This demonstrated that a rising tide of GDP did not result in raising the well-being of all Alberta households
This work demonstrated the capacity to show the balance between explosive economic growth due to natural resource assets and Alberta’s overall state of well-being and the general happiness. We showed pointed out the shortcomings of our current accounting system whereby municipal, provincial and federal governments, despite having an abundance of natural capital assets, operate without a balance sheet that tracks the state and quality of these assets that contribute to our economic well-being.
In a similar study for the City of Edmonton in 2009, I showed that while Edmonton’s real GDP grew by 76.2% between 1981 and 2008 (or 2.8% per annum), the Edmonton Well-being Index — a composite index of 48 economic, social and environmental indicators — rose slightly in the early mid-1980s, peaked in 1983, then declined steadily hitting a low in 1998, with a steady recovery ever since. I was also able to show the relationship between per capita personal income taxes and a change in the Edmonton Well-being Index; in the period 1998-2009 there was a positive relationship between income taxes and the well-being index.
GDP is not the be all and end all of economic success. There are other ways to measure the progress of a society. Using the Genuine Wealth accounting model it is possible to account for the well-being of three sorts of capital:
- physical or manufactured (infrastructure and the means of production)
- human (wellness, skills and education)
- social (relationships, belonging, trust) and
- natural (oil, gas, minerals, forests, soil, water)
While the first three are renewable, natural resources such as fossil fuels, soil, biodiversity, and even forests may be depleted, sometimes permanently.
The United Nations is now proposing the “Inclusive Wealth Indicator” as a challenge to the myopic focus on short-term profits and economic capital inherent in GDP. The Inclusive Wealth Indicator, which is scheduled to launch later this year, captures economic growth as the aggregate of a country’s wealth including its natural resources. In its early findings, it found that natural capital declined 46% in Brazil and 31% in India during the last 17 years. This reduced the countries’ blazing GDP growth rates to a more modest “inclusive wealth” increase of 3% in Brazil and 9% in India.
Genuine Wealth accounting and analytics will help communities, businesses and countries account for their overall economic, social and environmental well-being in the form of a new and genuine balance sheet.
This way the real wealth of nations can be measured in relationship with what people most value about a good life.
Our goal is to provide individual, businesses, communities and national governments with practical tools for the regular assessment, reporting and enhancement of their real wealth, to create flourishing, resilient and happy communities of well-being.
Genuine Wealth Inc. is a cooperative business founded in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada May 10, 2012 by Mark Anielski, Bill Craig, Dominic Mishio and Robert McGarvey.