Measuring Success

| April 22, 2013 | 1 Comment

How do you define success? What creates a successful nation? According to common indicators of success, it’s obvious that our society values money above all else. Whether it’s a person’s bank account or a nation’s GDP, success has been skewed away from a general premise of well-being to wealth. The assumption that wealth alone creates happiness has detrimental affects on levels of society.

If wealth leads to happiness, shouldn’t this graph be linear?

People in society are largely characterized as successful by the size of their wallet. However, at the individual level, wealth is not the sole component that determines happiness. While a base income is necessary for a high standard of living, increasing income does not really add much to utility after that point. After reaching the basic set of needs, each dollar contributes less to happiness. If someone assumes that money leads directly to happiness, he or she will lack in other areas such as community, environment, health, or psychological well-being. Our misconceived notion of well-being at an individual level carries over into determining the success of a nation.

In every developed and developing country in the world, economic growth is always a primary objective. It’s right up there with national security and, in some countries, civil rights. The sole indicator used to measure the “progress” of a nation is its GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, or the market value of all goods and services produced within a country. The argument is that a rising GDP leads to a rising standard of living–more jobs are created that contribute to household income. Now, developing countries, encouraged by the World Bank and IMF, are pursuing similar measures to raise their own standards of living.

But is economic growth the end goal? What is GDP missing, and what does it say about how our society measures success?


I don’t want to be in that boat.

The underlying assumption of using GDP as an indicator of success demonstrates that our values are solely monetary, that what our society needs is a boost in national income, that it leads directly to an increased well-being of individuals and society. This is where GDP fails. Even GDP per capita, an attempt to measure the standard of living, fails to assess income inequality. Instead, it links all its citizens in a big pot of assumed equality. While the United States is at the top of GDP, we have significant income inequality, which may harm our economy in the end. Besides, if all the income is concentrated to the elites–what was the point of economic growth in the first place? It can exacerbate poverty, not increase individual and societal welfare.

GDP as an indicator of a nation’s success also does not include the ecological impact, or long-run externalities that are not calculated in the price of the sold product. Without the consideration of how to sustain and maintain our natural resources or divide our assets evenly, we will eventually sink. GDP only measures short-term economic gain instead of the sustainability of society and standard of living at large. Besides, when will our GDP be large enough? We’re attempting to shoot an imaginary target that gets farther and farther away every time we take a step towards it.

While President Obama places great importance on economic growth to increase standard of living, in his 2012 Inaugural Address, he stated that “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart–not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”


“Wait, isn’t the economic section supposed to be 100x bigger?”

So, if economic growth isn’t the main goal, what is? We should be measuring well-being, happiness, and sustainability of our nation. For example, Bhutan uses a new indicator called Gross National Happiness, which includes nine domains of psychological well-being, standard of living and happiness, good governance and gross national happiness, health, education, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, time use and happiness, and ecological diversity and happiness. Similarly, Columbia came out with the World Happiness Report, which assesses the “success” of every nation on a variety of indicators that aggregate to the national happiness. The sustainable development model also lists economic growth as only a third of an asset to the well-being of a society, focused on sustaining standard of livings for generations to come.

The jig is up, GDP. It’s time to look to the common good, to aspects of flourishing societies, communities, and individuals to develop new measurements of success. Our policies and indicators should reflect something larger than a small piece of the pie. What else are we missing?


* For more information, the UN University recently published a similar article at

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Category: featured, Politics

About the Author ()

Shannon originally hails from Hotlanta and still adjusting to the inclement winter weather in Boston. Shannon studies International Relations and Environmental Analysis and Policy, focusing on African and development. Shannon wants to see the world transformed, starting with herself. When she's not watching Cool Runnings, you can typically find Shannon wandering around aimlessly, swing dancing, or lounging around on her hammock.

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  1. Ryan Brister Ryan Brister says:

    I agree wholeheartedly; we as individuals are more than our incomes, and we as nations are more than our GDP.

    Also, I happened to come across this article, which suggests that you’re more likely to be happy if you live around green spaces than if you live in a wealthy neighborhood.

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