How to measure a society’s progress? To what end are we progressing?

It is that kind of ambiguity that made me recall a 1967 movie, “Bedazzled,” featuring Dudley Moore as Stanley. The devil has granted Stanley seven wishes which included wealth, an estate in the countryside and a beautiful wife. When the devil returns to check on his recruit, he mockingly asserts, “you must be happy,” to which a bewildered Stanley parrots back, “yes, I must be.”

We chuckle. The scene brings out the intuitive disconnection between the trappings of luxury and emotional wellbeing.

The trappings though, as our society is loathe to realize – like Stanely, are a trap. We’ve become ensnared, and not just by Alexa’s sultry purchase suggestions which promise to take you to the next level of consumer bliss, but by the collective measures of economic growth itself.

Gross Domestic Product, GDP, is a measure of the monetary value of all finished goods and services made within a country during a specific period. It has become a national mantra of sorts. When it goes up, we “must be happy.” Time to celebrate again at McDonalds with another Happy Meal.

Bobby Kennedy, during his presidential campaign, said, “(GDP) measures everything except that which is worthwhile.” That took the courage of conviction; it was from a different era though, before Alexa and our flirtations with happy-making digital devices.

Where do we look for alternative models and measures of progress – that which is worthwhile?

Bhutan would be a good start. Aside from the conventional measure of GDP, Bhutan’s primary benchmark for progress is Gross National Happiness – GNH. And although GNH is a fairly recent yardstick, an excerpt from Bhutan’s legal code from 1629 reads, “If the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.”

The values of Bhutan’s Buddhist culture underlie their focus on society’s wellbeing and contentment, just as America’s underlying Judeo-Christian culture is rooted in a Manifest Destiny of housing starts, jobs data, and inventory indexes.

By government mandate, 60 percent of Bhutan’s land remains forested, and 70 percent of agricultural production is organic. These are the kinds of policies that emerge from a collective ethic – one that perceives its citizens as beings to be nourished, and not consumers to be pitched to.

Which raises the question on the minds of our brilliant marketing executives: what would Alexa be heard pitching to the village householders of Bhutan? For the record, there are no McDonalds in Bhutan.

When Bhutan looks to its immediate neighbors, India and China, they observe and learn from an economic path they do not want to take. What they see are societies mad after GDP growth, trying to play catch-up with American consumption patterns. Their delirium for growth has led to the world’s highest levels of pollution. More to the point though, Bhutan is convinced that “the good life” isn’t going to be reflected in hierarchical wealth structures and corporate earnings.

In a similar vein, we’d be remiss to leave out the example of Finland, who attributes their many smiling faces to the “magic sauce” of cooperation, equality, respect for education, and trust. They too shun lopsided hierarchies of power.

There is no Shangri-la – as Bhutan’s prime minister is quick to point out. Tho Ha Vinh, director of the GNH Center says, “spirituality is becoming increasingly disconnected from the daily lives of young people, who have been flocking to the capital Thimphu in search of jobs and a more modern lifestyle.”

Yet he doesn’t see universities and their diploma mills as the answer. What he advocates for is an education centered on “emotional skills, social skills, trying to help people become good human beings … and creativity that will help them find what it is that they really want to do in life.” A mindful education for whole self-development which will lead to mindful economic development.

But aren’t they selling themselves short? I suppose they have yet to realize that you can’t be “great again” without graduating ambitious real estate tycoons.


After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view.

Recommended for you