[Viewpoint] Does GDP alone mean happiness?

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[Viewpoint] Does GDP alone mean happiness?

We often regard a country with a high per capita gross domestic product as a rich country. But is GDP the best indicator of our standard of living?

Imagine that deadly mosquitoes appear in swarms during the peak summer period of a country.

A large number of pesticides will be produced to exterminate them. In this case, it is natural that this country’s GDP would rise as a simple result of pesticide production, but people’s sense of happiness will likely decline due to the pesky mosquitoes.

Indeed, people will find a further dent in their happiness as limited resources have to be used to produce pesticides, instead of other, more pleasurable, goods.

Likewise, we will see a rise in GDP, when an industry releasing many environmental pollutants increases its production capacity.

Simply, steps taken to reduce environmental pollution may entail an increase in GDP.

However, we find it difficult to deduce from this that people enjoy a higher standard of living.

In short, GDP may fail to highlight a possible huge gap between the sense of well-being people feel about their lives and their actual quality of life.

The government has recently unveiled a plan to create its own quality of life indicator, the “National Happiness Index,” taking quality of life into consideration.

The indicator may be seen as a tool to realize a philosophy reflected in the president’s Liberation Day address that underscored the importance of further improving the people’s standard of living.

In fact, people’s common purpose in life may be summarized as the pursuit of happiness.

Recently, much multidimensional research has been done to explore various views on the nature of happiness and how to pursue it.

Though there have been no firm conclusions, a few matters have come to light.

Research findings show that there is a close relationship between the characteristics of each society and the abundance of happiness.

This demonstrates that developing happiness can be a realistic policy goal.

In this context, it is proper that French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed the development of new economic indicators showing the living conditions of his people and their quality of life.

In fact, some advanced countries, including France and Canada, together with an underdeveloped country such as the Kingdom of Bhutan, have long endeavored to include happiness in their measurements of economic progress.

Of course, the happiness index cannot be deemed to have nothing to do with GDP. Most countries with a relatively high degree of happiness chosen by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also have a high per capita GDP. Look no further than some European countries, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.

This means that these advanced countries have not simply paid attention to boosting productivity, but to reducing environmental pollution and heightening the quality of life.

If newly industrialized countries concentrate solely on the objective of economic growth, the long-term result will be global disasters such as climate change.

Against this backdrop, we should renew our awareness of the necessity to stop being bent on raising the GDP growth rate, an economic indicator simply emphasizing production.

In this sense, it is truly meaningful that the Third OECD World Forum on the themes of “Charting Progress, Building Visions, Improving Life” will be held in Busan this October, under the auspices of Korea’s National Statistical Office.

The forum will provide an opportunity to gain some important insights into the development of the well-being index in the report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress led by Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics.

During the period of this forum, we will learn a lot by studying the precedents of leading countries, synthesize the various views of members of society on happiness, and set a new policy paradigm through the development of the happiness index.

Such policy-oriented effort made by the government will help Korea establish itself as a leading country in the quest to improve quality of life in the international community.

*The writer is the president of Hallym University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Young-sun
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