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Bernanke boards the happiness bandwagon

August 7, 2012: 1:01 PM ET

Our economy is growing, yet many Americans are still struggling. Fed chief Ben Bernanke says we need a better way to measure our well-being.


Don't worry, be happy.

FORTUNE – Whenever we try to assess the health of the economy, we usually go by data sets that look at large groups, such as Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. But in recent years, a growing number of economists have suggested that GDP might not capture entirely how individuals are doing or what makes their lives better. They say they may need to develop new measures that focus on "well-being" or happiness.

All this might sound a little touchy-feely, but Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently joined this happiness movement. And for good reasons. While GDP and other broad measures suggest the U.S. economy is recovering – albeit, slowly – Bernanke says many people and businesses still face tough times.

"We should seek better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being, the ultimate objective of our policy decisions," he said on Monday at a conference of the International Association for Research in income and Wealth in Cambridge, Mass.

Bernanke pointed to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index, which underscores the truism in rich countries that money doesn't buy happiness. Equally, if not more important, are strong social networks, health, education and other such things that help raise the quality of life.

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In particular, Bernanke also pointed to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's "better life index." Launched last year, it turns to private citizens rather than economists or think tanks to measure how the world's 34 richest countries are faring based on benchmarks that fall into several areas – from housing to income to community to life satisfaction and work-life balance.

According to the index, Americans today are generally happier than most of the industrialized countries. In the OECD's latest index released in May, the U.S. ranked third behind Australia and Norway as the happiest industrialized nation in the world. In many ways, this makes sense, as strong demand or iron and ore and coal exports helped Australia largely sidestep the malaise gripping much of Europe and anemic growth in the U.S. In some ways, GDP is still relevant. Australia's economy grew 2% in 2011, while the U.S. trailed slightly behind growing at a 1.7% annual rate.

But even while Norway also grew at 1.7% last year, the country proved slightly happier than the U.S. Nevertheless, beyond GDP, the U.S. has a lot to be happy about.

Americans have greater access to education and clean water than the average citizen living in an OECD country, according to the OECD's better life index. They spend less on housing and there's also a stronger sense of community – on average, 92% of people believe that they know someone they could turn to in a time of need, slightly higher than the OECD average of 91%. Americans are more willing to help: More than 65% surveyed said they'd helped a stranger in the last month, markedly higher than the OECD average of 47%. And we're still rich: Average U.S. household wealth is estimated at $102,075 – much higher than the OECD average of $36, 238 and the highest figure overall.

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So are Americans happier than our GDP growth would suggest, as the OECD report seems to say? Or are we still struggling even as our GDP growth becomes stronger, as Bernanke pointed out? The truth is that while Americans are generally happier than most, that's probably only the case for a segment of our population. The gap between the haves and have-nots is wide. Whereas income of the top 20% is $81,878 a year, the bottom 20% lives on $10,591 a year, according to the index.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the lower your income, the lower your level of happiness. When Americans were asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 10 being the most satisfied), they gave it a 7.1 – higher than the OECD average of 6.7, according to the index. But given that "social status strongly influences subjective well-being," according to the index, those at the bottom 20% are less fulfilled. Whereas the bottom 20% has a life satisfaction level of 6.3, the score rises to 7.6 for the top 20%.

Indeed, GDP and other macroeconomic data might suggest America's economy is recovering. But as Bernanke notes, that doesn't capture what's really going on. And moving forward, the Fed and other policy-makers need to consider other ways to diagnose the economy as they think what to do next.

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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