Measuring GDP gives an incomplete picture of the health of a society.
American citizens are conditioned from birth to act a certain way, to value certain possessions, and to respect certain attitudes. This not only part of our culture, it is the definition of culture, and it is why we as a society feel the way we do about our lives and our selves. If we learn to value thin people, we will be happy when we are thin. If we learn to value wealth, we will be happy when we are wealthy. The problem arises when we are conditioned to want something that society cannot provide.
As a nation, we want several conflicting things: We want to be wealthy, we want a family, we want free time, we want to be successful, we want a myriad of other things that vary greatly between individuals, but most of them share the characteristic of being mutually exclusive in our society. To be successful, a person must work long hours, often to the detriment of his family life. To gain more income, most people would have to obtain a second job, or put in more hours at their current employer, which would interfere with their free time. Obviously, there is a conflict here that cannot be easily resolved within the framework of a capitalistic system, but that must be addressed if we are to become collectively happier.
The small Himalayan country of Bhutan has addressed this by focusing on the things that matter to their people, while gently bringing their nation into the 21st century. They have preserved their culture, but allow people to choose between traditional and western ways of doing things. They are an incredible and unique example of how gracefully a society can integrate itself into the global community without losing its identity.
Unfortunately, this same strategy won’t work for everyone. In the case of Americans, we are always in search of more. This is the primary reason why we aren’t happy: Nothing is ever enough. Executives with more money than most of us could dream of feel the need to steal. Why? Why would the well-respected head of a media empire commit an insider trading violation, or skim of the top of shareholder profits? To save a fraction of her monthly income? No, because most of us cannot pass up an opportunity to take more.
There are some exceptions to this of course. We have poor people, people who are the victims of crime, natural disaster, or just bad luck. But mainstream, middle class American citizens have nothing to complain about, and yet seem to do nothing but. We have clean water, warm homes, government subsidized education, high relative income levels, access to a varied diet, an effective justice system, and high rates of mental illness. From an economic standpoint, it makes little sense, but if you look at this from another perspective, you can begin to see that we ourselves are the problem.
The problem is not that our measuring system views society as an economic statistic, it’s that American citizens view their lives as an economic statistic. It is a change of attitude that we need, and perhaps a change in the definition of happiness.