19 May 2014

Beyond GDP: measuring happiness with eyeglasses and birdsong

A UN committee says we should consider measures beyond GDP to really see how successful, wealthy and happy a nation is. Here’s why.

It is nearly as mythical and complex as the hunt for eternal life: the secret to happiness.

The quest is even one of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s pet projects. He wants to measure the success of a nation by its wellbeing, rather than just its gross domestic product (GDP), to give a wider picture of how it is faring.

But he need not worry. A UN committee has come up with the answer for him – and we’ve explored it below.

Birds + a pair of glasses + a baby's weight + sleeping + washing machines + a crowd of teenage girls + lollipops = happiness.


Birds are seen as one of the simplest indicators of local environmental health. As many are at top of the food chain, accumulating chemicals or loss of biodiversity can be easily mapped through bird populations – so hearing birdsong is a good sign that environmental hazards, climate change and biodiversity loss are not out of control in an area.

A pair of glasses

Glasses which correct vision raise an individual’s earning potential by 20 per cent but 700 million people in the developing world lack affordable access to them. Globally, uncorrected vision results in $202bn economic loss.

A baby’s weight

Babies weighing less than 3 pounds 10 ounces at birth are more likely tosuffer long-term negative health effects, including learning and behavioural difficulties, so weight at birth is a strong future health indicator.


More sleep improves memory, increases concentration, strengthens the immune system and sense of well-being.

A US study found that the annual cost lost in worker productivity due to sleeplessness was $63bn.

Washing machines

Only two billion of the seven billion people in the world have access to washing machines. Because it requires water and power to function, it is a sign of developed infrastructure but more importantly, it allows people to spend their time and energy on more important (and interesting) pursuits rather than washing clothes by hand.

A crowd of teenage girls

Fewer than one in five girls in sub-Saharan Africa can attend secondary school, but with every extra year of education, a girl’s future wages are raised by 15-25 per cent. Plus, if she finishes high school, statistically she will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. So girls out and about on their way home from school is a good sign for a nation, apparently.


There is a quality of life measure called the “popsicle index” – what percentage of people in your area do you think would believe a child can leave their home, go nearby to buy a popsicle or other snack, and return home safely? – which experts believe could help measure wellbeing in a nation.

So there you have it.

Source: UN University’s International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change