This article originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 22 June 2013.
I am writing this week’s column in my hotel room in Sydney, where I am for a week, visiting clients and having meetings. Actually, most of my time is spent trapped in Sydney’s traffic, with only a small portion of my actual time in Sydney devoted to other activities such as eating, sleeping and meeting with my clients. An hour in Sydney’s traffic is a reminder of why many people choose to live outside Sydney and the other capital cities. If I have to drive anywhere, I try to beat Sydney’s rush hour by leaving the hotel at 6:00 am, only to find that at least two million other drivers have had the same idea, leaving us all sitting in the pre-dawn gloom in endless traffic jams. Trips across town have to be planned with military precision, and a single wrong turn can add ten minutes to your journey. It’s no surprise that for many visitors to Sydney, their most enjoyable drive is the one back home to the country.
Stuck in yet another traffic jam, I began to wonder about the true cost of such an existence. When economists discuss the growth rate of the economy, they do so in terms of the change in gross domestic product, or GDP as it is better known. GDP is essentially the value of all goods and services produced in a country over a given period of time. It’s a dry statistical calculation which keeps a small army of public servants in a job and gives the media something to talk about every three months. The problem with GDP however, is that it may give you an idea of how rich a country is, but it doesn’t tell you much about the quality of life. It’s entirely possible for an economy to be growing strongly, but for its citizens to be depressed and miserable due to factors such as stress, pollution and overwork. Is it better to be rich and miserable, or poorer but happier?
For an answer we can turn to the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who coined the phrase Gross National Happiness, or GNH. GNH was seen as an alternative to GDP; a subjective measure that attempted to take into account quality of life, not just the level of economic activity. Calculating GNH meant taking into account physical, mental and social wellness, in addition to the usual economic variables. Unfortunately no-one has yet worked out a gross national happiness index for regional Australia as compared to Sydney or the other major cities, but as I sat in the car thinking about the 20 minutes it was going to take me to drive just five kilometres, I was pretty sure what it might say.