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MN2020 - How Gross National Happiness Impacts Policy Outcomes
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How Gross National Happiness Impacts Policy Outcomes

September 25, 2013 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

A new United Nations study, mostly ignored in the United States, measures countries on how they’ve achieved what is being called “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) for their people.

It’s an interesting concept. It also offers opportunities for Minnesotans to differentiate themselves from the pack, or other states, should they set their sights on international standards and not just middle range statistical averages for U.S. states.

In one of the few reports that penetrated the U.S. market, Sara Gates wrote in the Huffington Post that the world’s happiest people tend to live in Northern Europe, no stranger to equitable public policy outcomes.

Of a 156-nation survey in the UN's World Happiness Report, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland have the “happiest” citizenry, followed by the Netherlands and Sweden. Our good neighbor Canada came in sixth.

The United States ranked 17th, one notch behind Mexico. 

What happiness requires are public safety nets sparing people from worrying about where your next meal is coming from, whether they have access to appropriate health care when needed, whether they have access to affordable education, and whether they have realistic prospects for meaningful jobs and careers.

This is where America falls flat on its face. 

In July 2010, Minnesota 2020 published a report, “Prosperity Ahead: Sweden’s Past Points Minnesota Forward,” which explored that nation's history with a “middle way” approach to promote economic opportunity and general well-being.

Subsequently, Minnesota 2020 published articles from a Norwegian colleague, Nina Slupphaug, which compared U.S. healthcare shortcomings with systems in places like Norway and Germany.

These findings are consistent with a book by Earl Gustafson, a former Minnesota state legislator and state court judge, who wrote The Swedish Secret: What the United States Can Learn from Sweden’s Story, published by Syren Book Co., Minneapolis, in 2006.
In it, Gustafson wrote:

“While the United States fought against Communism during the Vietnam War and the Cold War, Sweden, along with other countries in Western Europe, democratically increased public spending and taxation, thus creating prosperous and more equal societies. This shift was not accomplished instantly and will always remain a work in progress. However, because much has been achieved and has been tested for several generations, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn; namely, that large increases in public spending and taxation, democratically adopted and intelligently planned to benefit all citizens, do not deter a country’s economic growth.”

Gustafson said this past week that nothing has changed to alter that observation.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan advanced the concept of Gross National Happiness, or GNH, in the 1970s. He was searching for a more human and meaningful measure than per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data. Supported by academic researchers over the years, a GNH Index took shape that now measures 33 indicators under nine broader domains.

These nine areas include psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

With 68 cosponsoring nations, the United Nations approved a Bhutan resolution in 2011 launching GNH studies for guiding policy makers on domestic social and economic policies. An initial report was prepared in 2012 that led to the more detailed report this month for the opening of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the London School of Economics and Columbia University’s Earth Institute prepared the report.

Bringing the findings home to America and closer still to Minnesota, the researchers found mental health an important factor in individual happiness. “About 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression and anxiety disorders,’ they wrote. “They are the biggest single cause of disability and absenteeism, with huge costs in terms of misery and economic waste.”

While cost-effective treatments exist, they added, only a third of those in need are in treatment in the developed countries. With 50 percent or better recovery rates, treatments can have low or zero net cost from savings they produce. And, the researchers added, “Moreover human rights require that treatment should be available for mental illness as it is for physical illness.”

Political ideologies and vested interests are working to deny access to healthcare, weaken educational opportunities and contribute to even more food insecurity for fellow Americans. Ground up action can offset some of the unhappiness that weighs America down in the World Happiness Report.

We must make certain Affordable Care Act benefits reach people in need. We have increased hunger and food insecurity that need community assistance. We need to raise the minimum wage to improve living standards. We must make educational opportunities affordable for all.

Our neighbors in Canada and Mexico and cousins back in northern Europe prove it can be done.

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