GDP Vs. GNH: Rethinking What A Healthy Economy Means

Successful, lasting businesses need to turn a profit. But should making money be the ultimate measure when gauging success?

Not according to self-described “renegade economist” Della Duncan. Della’s hope is for organizations to prioritize people’s health and happiness, as much as—if not more than—profitability. It’s not that money doesn’t matter. Instead, other human-centric metrics should as well.

As the Upstream podcast host on alternative economic practices, an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity, a research activist at the London School of Economics, and more, Della is a trusted economic facilitator. She’s worked with companies and communities to build better systems that work for the highest-paid CEOs and those on the assembly line.

Making these shifts towards more ethical economies isn’t easy. But with a planet filled with innovative thinkers and motivated leaders, Della believes that we can reframe our long-held views to create a better future for everyone.

Rethinking the Healthy Economy 

In our strongly Capitalist society, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and financial growth are seen as the highest barometers of business success. But although profitability is certainly important, should it be everything?

By focusing on money alone, Della says that many other critical factors are left on the sidelines. When neglected, these human-centered issues can negatively affect any organization and even society-at-large. Especially in our interconnected world, Della wants leaders to consider how their business decisions impact their employees, community, and the planet.

According to CNBC, the average CEO makes about 278 times more than their average employee. With statistics like this, it’s little surprise that more people are striving to build a fairer, more equitable economy.

“To change our economic systems, we need to change the goal,” says Della. “We also need to change our view of what the economy is and work toward economic systems that bring greater health, wellbeing, and happiness.”

Some of these goals include increased employee happiness, fair pay, the sustainability of products, and supply chain transparency. By measuring the human and environmental impacts of a business—not just the monetary—business leaders can positively influence society beyond only their product or service.

It’s this expansive, non-traditional view of economics that led to Della’s affinity for the title of “Renegade Economist.” She explains what that entails more in-depth:

“Think about how economics is taught,” she says. “There are underlying assumptions built-in and voices that are not a part of the discussion. A renegade economist seeks out those other perspectives and voices to challenge traditional economic thinking and rethink economics.”

From genuinely listening to in-house employees’ concerns to learning about the working conditions of people building your products overseas, renegade economists will hear those who often go unheard. By inviting these voices to the conversation, we can create a fully inclusive economic system.

Building a More Equitable Economy

One of Della’s greatest economic inspirations comes from the Asian country of Bhutan. Tucked high in the Himalayas, this small kingdom made a name for itself by gauging their nation’s success differently than others. In addition to GDP, Bhutan also tracks their GNH—or Gross National Happiness.

The idea began in the 1970s when the 4th King of Bhutan took the throne. With a desire to be a king for the people, he traveled around the country to ask citizens what they wanted out of their new leader. “He was surprised,” says Della. “He thought they’d say more roads or more jobs—things like that. But instead, folks said, ‘We want to be happy.’”

Inspired, the king assembled a team to create a framework to effectively measure the Gross National Happiness of his people. Every four years, citizens are surveyed based on criteria like health, psychological well being, living standards, life balance, and cultural diversity. The government then gathers data to aid in determining initiatives to pursue in building a happier, more balanced nation.

Since GNH’s launch, Bhutan has become a shining example of leadership that elevates happiness to the same—if not a higher—level of importance as fiscal. Today, more leaders are seeking ways to integrate GNH-like philosophies for their own businesses.

Although Bhutan is a small country, there are many ways to take the inspiration, whether you are a leader of a company or a country, and make it your own..

Leaders for People and Profit

As a certified Gross National Happiness Trainer, Della has supported many businesses as they integrate GNH into their organizations. Often, the core challenge is reframing goals away from profit alone and including human factors as well.

The idea of people before profit is growing. With organizations like the Small Giants CommunityTugboat Institute, and Conscious Capitalism, leaders are learning that they can be profitable while making socially and environmentally conscious choices.  Still, even the most positive business leaders understand that the morally right decisions aren’t always the most profitable. When faced with increasing the bottom line or benefitting employees, tensions will often arise.

That’s where internal support becomes critical. “You need that buy-in from the community, the customers, and the culture,” says Della. “If you can get people to believe in the values of that company, they’ll appreciate that you’re putting [values] over profit.”

She also suggests starting small. Re-write your mission statement so that it’s more people-centric. Give your team an annual happiness survey (and act on their feedback). Support more sustainable practices within your business. Once these little changes become an accepted part of the work culture, it’s easier to scale.

With time and conviction, any business can flourish into a healthier, happier, and profitable business. Like Vietnam’s largest footwear brand Biti’s and international clothing brand Eileen Fisher, some companies have deeply integrated GNH into their culture.

Others have evolved into worker-owned cooperatives. Since everyone claims ownership, Della explains, “they’re inherently more democratic and equal. Money, income, and profit is more evenly dispersed.” After all, every team member plays an important role. Shouldn’t the profits be shared in a way to reflect that?

Della often references the Spanish corporation and worker-owned co-op Mondragon as inspiration. There, nobody can make more than six times than what the lowest-paid employee earns annually. The CEO can still make substantially more than a new hire, but this system fairly benefits every team member from the top down.

“When I look at this, I think about how great this could be for all businesses,” Della says. “It’s an invitation to rethink what it means to lead a successful organization.”

If Della’s words speak to you, think of them as invitations to rethink your own business structure. Take the leap—even if it’s small. “It’s vulnerable, and there is some risk-taking involved. It can be scary,” she says. “But it’s a very fulfilling adventure.”

The conversation with Della Duncan continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! You can also watch me chat with Della on YouTube. Learn more about being a renegade economist, which businesses have integrated GNH, advice on creating a more sustainable economy, and SO much more!

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Dr. Dilhani Uswatte