This week I listened to Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell interview Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the Civil Service. One section of the interview stood out; they asked him about his ideas around having a government put as much emphasis on Gross National Happiness (GNH) as it did on Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The new Labour Government have been open and frank about the fact that they don’t plan on changing much, and it seems that the Chancellor Rachel Reeves will priorities balancing the books above all else; and any real new investment will be sought from the private sector. So, no real radical change here then, more of the same.

So, if the new Government will essentially follow the same kind of economic and political agenda as the outgoing one, what will change? How will things get any better?

Well, if nothing else, we can hope that they can do something to change the mood. I know that sounds soft, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of mood and how people feel. It’s linked to happiness, and if you take a holistic approach to the person and society then you can believe that a happier person/society is also a healthier more prosperous one.

GDP was designed to gauge economic activity, not how the whole person in body, mind and soul, is doing. GDP doesn’t distinguish between beneficial and harmful economic activities. For instance, Gus O’Donnell pointed out that volunteering doesn’t boost GDP, but activities like selling drugs or engaging in prostitution do! Such activities increase GDP despite their detrimental effects on society; and good activities such as volunteering can radically change someone’s life, but don’t show up at all in any GDP calculations.

GDP reflects activity but is indifferent to its nature. It could mean digging up more coal mines or opening a gas peaking plant in Caernarfon (!) to boost economic growth, which is hardly a marker of true success.

Real success should be about enhancing people’s happiness and well-being.  

Unemployment undermines self-esteem and social connections, which are vital for well-being.  Unemployment isn’t just a problem of ‘economic inactivity’, it’s linked to self-worth and ideas of vocation and calling.  Imagine a government dedicated to improving lives and well-being not just growing GDP?

Personally, I think Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one radical approach that should be seriously considered in the future. The idea is that the initial cost would be balanced out by a healthier and happy workforce that would in turn lead to economic growth and more tax revenue to spend on public services.

I agree with Gus O’Donnell, it’s time for a paradigm shift: prioritising Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product. This is one thing the new Government can do even if they say they haven’t got much economic leavers to pull. They can change the mood, the story and the posture. They can say no to the politics of cynicism and fear and choose hope. We shouldn’t belittle the importance of mood and feeling within society because we are not economic pawns, we are human beings made up of body, mind and spirit. As a person of faith, I think this challenge is particularly poignant for Christians in this new season opening in front of us.  

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