Measuring gross happiness: Should Seattle be more like Bhutan?

Mother and Three Children, Bhutan by Flickr user

As the recession dragged on in 2011, America’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew only a few percent. Economists say GDP is an important indicator of the health of an economy. But is GDP the best way to measure how the country is faring?

Sustainable Seattle, a local nonprofit, says GDP fails to to account for overall well being of the citizens. Inspired by the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where the government maintains a “gross national happiness index,” they created a survey assessing “the conditions for happiness” in people’s lives. Over 7,000 Seattleites filled it out last year.

Laura Musikanski, the Executive Director of the group’s Happiness Initiative, calls it “the most efficient and effective way to measure well being.” The Seattle City Council has pledged to use the survey to shape city policy.

The results? They drew headlines last month like this one: “Are you happy? Apparently, most Seattlelites are darn happy.”

The Globalist dug a little deeper. Musikanski says in the areas of community engagement, governance, and the natural environment, people in Seattle are not very happy. Still, the survey found that “people are basically able to make ends meet.”

But because the survey was opt-in and online only, “We think that we had more people taking it who had middle and higher level incomes. And that’s why we’re going to now survey immigrant, refugee, and homeless communities.” Mukinaski says the survey is being translated into Tagalog, Oromo, Solami, Vietnamese and Spanish.

Not on that list are Dzongkha and Nepali, the languages spoken by people from Bhutan. Yug Dabadi, a refugee from Bhutan whose family was resettled by humanitarian agencies in Everett, told the Globalist there’s nothing about the tiny monarchy that Seattle should try to emulate.

Dabadi became a refugee at age 13, fleeing from southern Bhutan because of what he called “persecution” against his Nepali-speaking ethnic minority group.  Human rights groups say the government arbitrarily stripped thousands of their Bhutanese nationality and pushed them out of the country in the 1980s.  Amnesty International calls it “one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”

“The policy of gross national happiness, in my opinion, they use to cover all the abuses committed against people in the South,” he says. “If you ask people in Bhutan if they’re happy, they will always fear to tell the truth.” Inside Bhutan, the media environment is “restricted,” according to Freedom House.

Bhutan’s Commissioner of Happiness visited Seattle last year to help develop the survey used by the Happiness Initiative. The previous year in Vermont, his visit sparked protests by the Bhutanese refugee community there.

“They say it’s good to have a policy to make people happy,” Dabadi says, “but their intention is to hide all their atrocities and mistakes.” He’s hopeful the Seattle survey is more accurate, because people here are free to say what they want.

Last year’s survey by the Happiness Initiative didn’t use a statistically valid representative sample, but that will change this year. As for Bhutan’s treatment of refugees, Mukinaski says, “We don’t look to Bhutan or any government, including our own, as a model for what we’re doing. We’re doing this work because we see a system that is broken.”

Take the survey or learn more about it at the Seattle Happiness Initiative’s website.