The announcement by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration last week that it would create a national happiness index and make Taiwanese wealthier marks an important task for the Cabinet led by Premier Sean Chen (陳冲). The government must not just look at the GDP growth rate, as this does not translate into happiness for the majority of the population, who want to feel the true benefits of economic growth.
While a nation’s GDP is normally the primary economic datum economists and investors use to summarize the standard of living in a country, it is the feeling of security that depends on the rise or fall in the unemployment rate, salaries and consumer prices that the average person is concerned with.
To address what people really want and feel, the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) on Tuesday said it planned to launch a national happiness index next year to measure people’s satisfaction with their well-being.
The DGBAS did not reveal much about the details, but said the proposed happiness index would model the “Your Better Life Index,” which was established last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (a grouping that includes developed Western economies as well as Japan), which gauges people’s satisfaction in such fields as housing, income, jobs, education, the environment, health, safety, governance and work-life balance.
Clearly, the launch of a national happiness index aims to go beyond the GDP figure and become more relevant to people’s daily lives. Ideally, it would encourage the government to deliver better policies to improve people’s well-being, based on the public’s satisfaction with various aspects of their lives.
The happiness index plan echoes a remark Chen made on Monday that his Cabinet has vowed to bring wealth to the people and that the idea of wealth would not be limited strictly to material prosperity, but also include mental health and cultural progress.
Chen’s talk about an economy that enriches people is reminiscent of an idea his predecessor, vice president-elect Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), had proposed to develop grassroots economic benchmarks, including a new cost-of-living index. Wu’s Cabinet also aimed to address the problems facing the average person, but this was to no avail, as many Taiwanese still suffer stagnant salaries as the wealth gap between rich and poor widens.
It has yet to be seen if Chen’s “happiness” plan is just another fancy political slogan. If his plan is a sincere move toward the pursuit of development that balances the national wealth with people’s life satisfaction, then it might be worthwhile.
However, this is by no means the first time the government has made such high-sounding promises. Grandiose schemes like industrial transformation, technological innovation and cultural creation have come and gone and left little tangible in their wake.
A further worry is that there always seems to be a tradeoff between the nation’s economic growth and people’s everyday happiness.
Also, although the happiness index sounds great in principle, just how does the government intend to measure such a subjective and abstract concept?
This abstraction and subjectivity could lead the government — as it tries to move closer to people’s daily lives — to wrongly formulate policies by adopting a bottom-up approach, should it pay too much attention to the happiness index.
Nonetheless, an effort to go beyond GDP growth and bring benefits to the average person is always welcome — it is just that such work is never easy.
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