OECD Catches Up with Bhutan

The 34-member nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has taken a page from the book of the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and issued a comprehensive set of guidelines for measuring subjective well-being.

The 265-page document, designed to provide advice for statisticians and researchers on how to measure how individuals evaluate and experience their lives, doesn't mention Bhutan, whose previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Dragon King, came up with the idea of a Gross National Happiness Index in 1972 to measure social, economic and political change in his remote country instead of the more common Gross Domestic Product.

However, the idea is about the same - how to measure a country's or society's well-being by means other than its physical wealth. It is an idea that is spreading remarkably outside of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, with sociologists belatedly trying to decide what new parameters should be employed to measure a country's well-being. The OECD, founded in 1961, is an organization that was created to deal with economic development. It is feeling its way into a new concept.

Bhutan's nine indicators include psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, culture, health, education, environmental diversity, living standards and governance. Each of these is then broken down. Psychological wellbeing, for instance, include general psychological distress indicators, emotional balance indicators, and spirituality indicators. The community vitality indicators consist of a family vitality indicator, a safety indicator, a reciprocity indicator, a trust indicator, social support indicator, socialization indicator and kinship density indicator.

As could be expected, the OECD guidelines, apparently under development for more than a year and a half since the Paris-based organization said it was introducing its Your Better Life Index, are imprecise at best. Indeed, according to the new, "These guidelines should be viewed as providing advice on best practice rather than being a formal statistical standard. At present, countries differ in terms of how much interest they have in information on subjective well-being, and in terms of the ability of national statistical offices to collect such data."

Subjective well-being, according to the OECD, is taken to include good mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences.

The guidelines also provide advice on measuring people's experience and evaluations of particular domains of life, such as satisfaction with their financial status or satisfaction with their health status, as well as measures of "meaningfulness" or "purpose" in life. This definition of subjective well-being hence encompasses three elements:

  • Life evaluation - a reflective assessment on a person's life or some specific aspect of it.

  • Affect - a person's feelings or emotional states, typically measured with reference to a particular point in time.

  • Eudaimonia - a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning.

Until recently, these concepts were often deemed beyond the scope of quantitative measurement. Indeed, King Jigme Wangchuk spent the better part of two decades working to come up with an answer. Conferences have been held in Brazil, Bhutan, Bangkok, Nova Scotia, and Yokohama, among other cities and countries, in later years to discuss the concept.

GNH, as it is known, hasn't worked perfectly. Bhutan is struggling with a panoply of social problems including migration to the capital city of Thimpu, unemployment, a growing drug problem and a growing lack of adherence to the kingdom's Buddhist tradition. (see Asia Sentinel, 11 June, 2012)

Nonetheless, a growing body of researchers has sought to learn what subjective well-being is and how to measure it, not to mention inventing words like "eudaimonia."

The guidelines are intended to "provide both a resource for data producers developing their own surveys, as well as a guide for ensuring that the data collected will be more internationally comparable." For users who are interested in developing their own questions, the guidelines could be used as a reference book.