Prosperity, pound for pound

Reading about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to start measuring happiness reminded me of that old Star Trek phrase: live long and prosper. It was Doctor Spock, the very logical vulcan, who used it. Most of us remember the accompanying hand sign but I loved the phrase, it encompasses so much in four words. In fact, prosper is a really good word, but what exactly does it mean?

By Iman Kurdi

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Published: Thu 25 Nov 2010, 8:21 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

Is prosperity purely a question of wealth? When you say someone is prosperous, generally it means that person is rich. Similarly when we speak of being rich, we tend to define this purely in financial terms. Though to prosper means to thrive and do well, the meaning is too easily circled down to imply doing well financially. Countries also normally define prosperity purely in terms of the economic products and services they produce or Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Is this an adequate way of measuring a country’s prosperity?

The idea that GDP is not a good enough measure of prosperity and that we should move away from something purely quantitative towards more qualitative measures that include subjective well-being as well as environmental substainability comes from two Nobel prize winners, the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. It is an idea that is fast gaining ground.

The prosperity of a nation’s people should rightly be a government’s top priority when setting public policy. Generally the emphasis is on increasing economic growth. The greater a country’s GDP, the higher the standard of living of the country’s citizens, so the assumption goes. But is it really that straight-forward? Take a simple example, that of cars. As a country becomes richer, people buy more cars, this increases trafic jams and creates pollution. Has the quality of life increased or decreased?

Moreover, increased economic wealth does not automatically translate into increased well-being. As people have become richer and enjoyed higher standards of living over the last few decades in the developed world, they have become less not more happy. Research in both Britain and the US has found that subjective levels of well-being have not increased with rising wealth. I will wager that the same holds true in the middle East. Once a country develops past the point where basic needs are met and people start to have disposable income, the link between wealth and well-being becomes more muddled.

Conversely, research suggests that the recent global down-term has not led to the misery and despondency you might expect but if anything has led to a slight increase in levels of personal happiness. Now I dont want to fall into the kind of false conclusion made by Lord Young last week who claimed that people in Britain have never had it so good (and has now resigned for saying something so stupid) but simply to highlight one of the few positives that have come out of the hard times of the last couple of years. Basically the down-turn has encouraged a move away from overly materialistic consumerism and created an opportunity to reassess priorities. People who did not lose their jobs or their homes or their savings asked themselves whether they really needed all that ‘stuff’ afterall.

Which brings us back to measuring prosperity. What Britain may be the first to do is to introduce and track a measurement of general well-being and to use this data to inform public policy choices. From as early as next spring, a happiness index will be compiled. A number of questions about people’s well-being will be included in the quarterly household survey. The questions have not been compiled yet but may follow similar questions used in Canada, such as ‘How much do you enjoy your life?’ and other questions about people’s living standards as well as their values, goals and aspirations.

Though other countries such as Canada and France have moved towards trying to measure the happiness and well-being of their citizens, Britain is the first to aim to publish the data regularly and to use it to inform decision-making. As a concept, it’s rather revolutionary.

But how meaningful is that data? Subjective levels of happiness are interesting but they are just that, subjective. How do you compare between countries or between generations? GDP may be limited in its scope but it’s a cold hard number. It’s objective and it means the same thing everywhere. Quality of life data that measure things such as quality of healthcare, access to education and so on already exists, and that too can be boiled down to hard numbers that can be tracked and compared. But well-being in its true sense, the genuine prosperity of a people, is a complex interaction of a number of factors that will mean different things to different people.

It will be interesting to see what the British experiment throws up. Apparently there is disquiet in government circles that Britain should start to measure happiness at a time of austerity measures and drastic cuts in welfare benefits, but then again with a Royal Wedding in the offing some commentators predict a lifting of the general mood. Are people really that fickle? Perhaps they are, Princess Diana’s death certainly led to an outpouring of grief, her son’s wedding may well bring a surge of joy.

Whatever the results, Britain’s happiness index is a welcome trend. It is heartening to see countries look at prosperity in more meaningful terms and to start to move away from the narrow confines of defining prosperity only in terms of goods and services produced. It seems a more intelligent approach to think of prosperity in terms of human well-being than economic production, one is afterall part of the other. Live long and prosper.

Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in Nice, France. For comments, write to

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