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A new way to measure a nation’s success

| Thursday, September 2, 2021

How do we determine whether a country is successful? Great? So called “first-world?” In many instances, the numerous rankings and scores given to nations are based on some quantifiable, monetary measure such as GDP or unemployment rate. That’s certainly fair, as a country’s economic health correlates with wealth and development. But does it correlate with a people’s well-being? Are the countries with the highest GDP and most millionaires and billionaires necessarily the happiest on Earth? The answer is, possibly surprisingly to some, no.

To lay this out a bit more clearly, here’s a ranking of the three wealthiest countries on the planet based on GDP adjusted for inflation:

  1. The United States
  2. China
  3. Japan

Next, here’s a ranking of the most depressed countries in the world according to the World Health Organization:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. The United States

The United States and China — two of the wealthiest nations on Earth with GDPs in the trillions — are also among the top countries in which citizens are suffering with mental illness such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. This was quite surprising — to me, at least — because we are conditioned to believe that more money and wealth means more happiness and well-being. That’s seemingly not necessarily the case. The other countries populating the ranking of the most depressed nations are war-torn places with less economic health, but it’s still shocking that the United States — the “beacon of hope,” the “city on a hill” — is right there as well.

Maybe the traditional and easily quantifiable standards, such as GDP and economic wealth, shouldn’t be the only ways by which a country’s “success” is measured. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of wealth and prosperity if one in five Americans suffer from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety? How can we call ourselves a beacon of hope for the rest of the world when so many of us are unhappy? When one in six of our youth experience a mental health disorder every year? When suicide is the second leading cause of death among young adults and adults? It’s time we start thinking of different ways to judge our nation’s — or any nation’s — success that focus not only on national economic wealth, but also on individual happiness, well-being and sense of security. Perhaps that’s the way we can better realize and treat the severe mental health crisis afflicting our wealthy, economically prosperous nation.

Perhaps GDP alone isn’t the best way to measure success if it fails to account for wealth and income disparities. It doesn’t capture the fact that the richest one percent of Americans own “fifteen times more wealth than the bottom fifty percent combined.” Sure, America is wealthy, but not everyone is sharing in that wealth and the prosperity and luxury that can come with it. Robert F. Kennedy put it quite succinctly when he said in a 1968 speech that GDP “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play…. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Let’s start also looking at a nation’s accessibility to quality education, economic equality, fair justice systems, psychological well-being, trust in their elected officials, work-life balance, sense of community and physical and mental health — everything which “makes life worthwhile.” Of course, no nation can have any of this without a strong economy, but it’s clear that a nation can have a strong economy but be lacking in each of these.

This might sound soft and naïve — in the midst of foreign wars, pandemics and everything else — and based on subjective data unlike a calculated measure of economic progress and growth, but that shouldn’t diminish its importance. Besides, it’s data- and policy-driven political actions that can and must change some of the aspects of life that are diminishing our national mental health.

If this past year has taught me anything, it is that mental health is fundamental and that we can shift our priorities to care for ourselves and our well-being. As a nation, we should do the same.


Megumi Tamura is a sophomore from New Jersey currently living in McGlinn Hall. She enjoys reading books, going to museums and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.   

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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