Development, Human Happiness and the Challenge of Distinguishing Means From Ends

Development, Human Happiness and the Challenge of Distinguishing Means From Ends

NEW YORK—25 August 2014

In relying on indicators, how can we quantify joy? Meaning? Well-being?

Development is inherently hard to quantify. Human well-being is exceedingly multifaceted, and those working to expand it tend to rely on certain indicators to draw conclusions about other conditions that, while ultimately more important, are difficult to quantify. Using per-capita GDP as an indicator of living standards or quality of life is one time-honored (though controversial and increasingly contested) example.

This is understandable and to some degree unavoidable. But reliance on indicators like GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has the unfortunate side effect of muddying the relationship between means and ends. Up to a certain point, for example, material well-being correlates with happiness. Past that, however, the correlation weakens, and then virtually disappears.

These challenges are widely understood. And yet such indicators, which are now being discussed at the United Nations for the next set of development goals, tend to monopolize our attention and shape both our conversation and our action. In how many development projects does rising household income or increased purchasing power become the most important metric considered?

In some ways money is an easy target to critique. Unfortunately confusion between means and ends extends to other, more “wholesome” seeming elements of development practice as well. Freedom from illness, for example, does not guarantee contentment in life. Access to formal education does not necessarily provide a sense of meaning or vision of constructive purpose. A full belly and well-stocked refrigerator does not equate to satisfaction with one’s lot in the world or hope for a better future.

The lack of these conditions might well have detrimental effects for human well-being. But their presence does not, in itself, assure either individual happiness or social flourishing. The depression, substance abuse, and suicide seen among the richest citizens and communities of the richest nations in the world bear unfortunate witness to the disconnect between access to material resources and services and the human desire for a life well lived.

Truly transformative change can only come if we transcend the realm of technique in order to address the question of the true and ultimate objective of development: human lives and societies increasingly characterized by peace, well-being and happiness; by knowledge, culture, and industry; by dignity, value, and purpose.

Digging wells, revising laws, and similar objectives can, in many cases, be accomplished by a relatively small cadre of experts and specialists.  In contrast, the task of expanding the foundations for human well-being and purpose, both individually and collectively, will require a much wider conversation. No longer will it be possible for the advancement of a global civilization to be the provenance of a few working on behalf of the many. Rather, it will need to be shouldered by greater and greater proportions of the human family.

Work of this kind is supremely affective in nature. It inescapably tied to flesh-and-blood human beings and the beliefs, feelings, values, and aspirations they hold dear. Human well-being, in this view, is defined just as much by qualities of spirit as qualities of the material environment. If the lived experience of actual people is taken as the metric of primary import, a region that is materially prosperous but plagued by alienation, prejudice, and suspicion could no more be considered “developed” than one which may suffer from malnourishment or unemployment but enjoys bonds of mutual support and generosity.

It will also require wrestling with a much messier and more “human” set of questions. What arethe foundations for human happiness and contentment? How will human beings need to act towards one other if all are to live life to the fullest? What patterns of interaction will be required between and among individuals, communities, and the governing institutions of society?  In what ways will qualities of spirit such as generosity, respect, or justice find practical, tangible expression in everyday life?

Questions like these are undeniably challenging. They touch on complex issues of personal belief and social value, and resist “answer” by simple recipe or formula. Yet in the final analysis, widespread human well-being cannot be achieved without a conscious exploration of the prerequisites for that very well-being. Only in this way can progress for all be achieved and the international development agenda hope to achieve its true and ultimate goal. 

By Daniel Perell

Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations

Please go to The Baha’i International Community Website for others messages from the Baha’i International Community.

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