New economics

Happy woman in India

Measuring happiness

"GDP measures everything, but which makes life worthwhile" – Bobby Kennedy

In 2000, Jon Hall led the development of the ABS groundbreaking project, Measures of Australia's Progress.  At that time, statistics on well-being were in their infancy and economic growth was the main compass used to assess trends in living conditions. 

Sitting in a giant marquee in a crowded coffee hell in New Delhi, it seems times have changed. I am at the OECD 4th World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy, called "Measuring Wellbeing for Development and Policy Making." 

I've just heard the UK's Prime Minister, David Cameron, decry the shortfalls of the GDP as "an incomplete way of measuring a country's progress." He recalled Bobby Kennedy's famed speech from the 1960's, in explaining its shortcomings: "Destruction, crime, disease can all amount to progress in terms of GDP." And yet, no society would deem these desirable conditions.

This realization has led the UK government to begin the process of attempting to measure the subjective well-being, or happiness, of its citizens.

For a conservative government of the Western world to be talking about measuring something as fluffy as happiness is groundbreaking stuff indeed

"It's exciting because it gets people thinking and talking. Soon we'll have 'Happiness Data envy'," says Jon Hall. In the 13 years since Jon started this work, he has had a major influence on the global stage, spawning the OECD's Global Project on Measuring Progress. For nearly a decade, the OECD has led the international reflection on the measurement of wellbeing and progress, with three world forums in Italy, Turkey and South Korea. 

Now, in New Delhi in 2012, 1500 delegates from 150 countries gather together to promote the development and use of new measures of well-being for effective and accountable policy making. But Delhi is different from its predecessors. Here there is a distinct focus on the participation of citizens in the process; an affirmation that definitions of progress can not be handed down from above, but generated from below – from the lived experience of its citizens.

We just kickstarted a community consultation process for the Australian National Development Index last week, throwing wide open the question to small groups of Australians, "what are your priorities for the future of this country?" Its exciting to know that we're part of a world wide movement. 

The tide has clearly turned, and if the size and enthusiasm of the delegates of this conference is anything to go by, it may soon turn into a tidal wave of support for a more holistic approach to development, putting well-being and sustainability at the core of a new model of progress.

As David Cameron said: "Our success as a country is about more than economic growth. This effort to measure wellbeing and happiness will kickstart a national debate about what it is that makes a better life, and in time, will lead to policy more focused on all those things that make life worthwhile."

Images copyright Adarsh Upadhyay and Jeeheon.

Comments (1)

Lorena Sanchez
9 November 2012 - 4:32am

Hello Regina,
I am working on the OECD's Better LIfe Initiative, could we chat about your work? You can reach me at
Cheers, Lorena