The measure of happiness

It is March 18, 1968, and Robert Kennedy is giving a speech to the Kansas University students that is destined to go down in history. One passage in particular will be quoted countless times in later years and even today has not lost its force, indeed. He said that:

“[GDP] measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The strength of great communicators and great speeches is to use easily understood examples to get to the point of talking about more general and universal ideas and concepts. In the case of this speech by Kennedy, the starting point is GDP, i.e., gross domestic product, the value of a nation’s wealth, which, although it is only a number, has for decades been considered the only benchmark measure to which everything can be compared. In journalistic, political and social simplification, GDP has the allure of the magic number that indicates the health of a nation: the higher it is, the better you live there, the more you consume, the healthier that nation is.
As Bob Kennedy said, however, this number does not measure so many aspects of everyone’s life that make existence worth living. GDP for example is not an index of happiness nor of the efficiency of schools nor of the penetration of sports in social life, meaning that a nation whose citizens do a lot of sports is healthier, both physically and mentally.
It is, indeed, a number and nothing else. Blameless and without particular merit.

Its strength is undeniable, however, and the consequences of considering it a magic number are even worse than its substantial inability to tell how a nation really is. One example? The fact that our ratio to GDP is only positive when GDP grows. If GDP increases then we can feel more comfortable, if it decreases then something is wrong.
Think how perverse our model of society manages to be: it entrusts one’s happiness to a number that does not even measure happiness.

Strength, in numbers

At this point-assuming you have endured this far-you may be wondering what GDP and Bob Kennedy have to do with race. They fit together for a very simple reason: they have numbers in common, or rather both GDP and race are measured in numbers. In the latter case, the numbers are pace, time in the race, miles run and many others but the underlying question is: what do they ultimately measure and what relationship should we have with them?

Exactly like GDP, the numbers that measure race parameters or distances are just that–numbers. They don’t and won’t give (because they can’t either) a measure of the happiness and satisfaction of running: they only indicate that on such and such a day you ran a certain amount of miles at a certain pace or that on that other day in the race you did this or that time.
However, they have the almost mystical force of numbers-they are things that everyone understands, especially when they escalate. More is better, or so it seems or is easy for us to believe.

The fact is that the really important things are not measurable. Like satisfaction, joy, neither are pain or humiliation or redemption. Yet these are the things that make life worth living: our individual fulfillment, the ability to overcome difficulties, the strength to build bonds and love. However they are not measurable: at most they are states of mind that we can perceive or that we can evaluate in very undefined terms, such as “I am happy” or “I am very sad” or “I am not at all satisfied with me” or “I am really proud of how I reacted.”

So what?

There is no clear-cut answer, no foolproof method. There are no alternative numbers to follow. There is no index of happiness or human wealth (not material and economic then). There is, however, a perception of what certain values mean to each of us. If economic wealth does not necessarily mean happiness then one can also be satisfied and happy according to other parameters, just as in running we can be proud of ourselves because we ran well and feel enriched by this very private and individual experience. Not because a number tells us that we should or should not be but because, on a deeper, non-rational, emotional level, we know that the measure of happiness is not a number or, if it is, only us can see it.
More is not better: more is just something bigger than something else. And happiness cannot be measured.

(Main image credits: nd3000 on


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