Sunday, November 4, 2012

Keep Questioning Mental Models!

This graph is beautiful.

My first instinct when looking at this great chart, provided by Dr. Norm Becker during his lecture, is how beautifully it illustrates the four variables that make up GDP.

I appreciate numbers. I've mentioned it before, appreciating the context numbers provide. Briefly in class, we talked about what ratios were "acceptable" or not, without thinking about the real context that the ratios might represent.

And, as most of us change agents are aware, GDP provides an important and valuable context; Likewise, we also realize that GDP does not measure many other variables; Often times, when this conversation comes up, Gross National Happiness(GNH) becomes another important context.  Here's a great 3 minute animated video short breaking down GNH for those unfamiliar. Happiness is increasingly being linked to economic outcomes. FastCo published an article looking at how GNH relates to developed countries, referencing Richard Heinberg's book, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.

Instead of elaborating about the importance of alternative models in providing more context, I wanted to challenge my own mental models. A research article written by Eric Ezechieli(co-founder of The Natural Step) from Stanford University's School of Education helped me do this.

I believe in education.

Interestingly, as education is increasing in Bhutan, largely due to international aid investment, Bhutanese children are becoming more and more prepared for the industrialized world. Literacy rates have skyrocketed, lifetime expectancy has doubled in the past 50 years(Ezechieli 2003, p.2).

The problem? GNH was dropping in Bhutanese citizens who went through their educational process. This is counter intuitive to the UNESCO's Sustainability and Education Initiative. The first priority was improving basic education, since typically, "in a global economy the countries with the highest illiteracy rates are forced to exploiting natural resources in order to acquire the currency to buy imported goods".  Essentially, as Western Education was imported into Bhutan, largely through expatriated Indian educators, the culture and values of Bhutanese people began to shift.

This is important, as it reflects on both the power of education, and its relationship with value creation.

Ezechieli's study concluded that even when mass education expansion appears to be successful, new challenges will continue to emerge, that require dynamic flexibility of current strategies.

This statement was powerful: "The dominant concept of 'increasing well-being in rich countries and eradicating poverty in the poor ones through economic growth' is obsolete, misleading and, I argue, it represents a menace for the survival of all living beings...It is not addressing the causes of the present disequilibrium. Indeed, the history of the past 50 years shows that this policy is likely to worsen social/ecological unbalances."(p.97)

This also parallels very well with Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, and Majora Carter's conversations on the importance of social justice, and essentially, how it IS the crux of sustainability.

It's not all doom and gloom though, as Bhutan and the GNH initiative represent an example of an opportunity for visions that go beyond sustainability. "Education.. is the greatest resource to shape and spread a new design, and translate it into action...There is no time to lose"(Ezechieli 2003, p.98).


  1. After reading through your post, I began to wonder about the root causes in terms of what likely accounts for the decrease in GHP amongst Bhutan individuals who pursue education. Is the basic premise essentially that as people become more involved in formalized education, the more likely they may be to strive toward productivity (in the traditional senses of this word), and in turn become the less likely to focus their main attention on other internal or external factors (factors that may have created a deeper or different sense of happiness within them), such as family, laughter, love, personal connection, and so forth?

    I am also curious about this quote…. "…in a global economy the countries with the highest illiteracy rates are forced to exploiting natural resources in order to acquire the currency to buy imported goods". Would love to hear a bit more about this. I understand the connection between illiteracy rates and exploitation of resources, but the connection between currency acquisition and imported goods is not as clear.

  2. p.s. would also love to hear more about the developments of GHP factors in other countries. Is this something that is actually catching fire? Is happiness increasingly being linked to economic outcomes? The very small, cynical part of me says, REALLY???

    1. To Hava's inner Cynic:

      YES, REALLY! ;)

      Even on a smaller scale in the U.S., happiness is being linked to economic outcomes. Obviously there are a million variables that go into this, and my important takeaway is:

      Across the ENTIRE socio-economic spectrum, students make greater gains in academic achievement, and lifetime economic performance, the happier they are.

      Amusingly, there's a big dropoff if kids are "too happy" - researchers suggest that this might be reflective of "complacency" - Ignorance is bliss?

  3. Aric my friend, another fantastic post. The Heinberg book you cited is yet another added to my ever-expanding summer reading list. I too have mentioned in my blog the farce of the "continual-growth mental model" and its inevitable trajectory of failure.
    Your examination of your mental model, a "belief in education" was truly enlightening. It makes sense to me that as education and literacy rates go up, so too does life expectancy. It also makes sense that the countries with highest illiteracy rates are forced to exploit the natural resources in order to survive. What doesn't make sense to me is why with improved education, increased literacy and better choices relative to resource management, why is the gross happiness decreasing? I understand the assertion that there has been a value shift but its attributed to a Western Education? Perhaps I missed something and you could follow up and fill me in.

  4. I hate to sound repetitive, but I was also taken aback by the increase in education causing a decrease in GNH. I propose that it's likely a temporary setback as the population begins to redefine itself. There can be a great deal of stress both on the individual and societal level as traditional, time-honored beliefs and spirituality are challenged by increasing scientific awareness and the development of critical thinking techniques which are characteristic of a western style education. A shift from faith to skepticism, even a slight shift, can be disorienting. The changing educational landscape was probably also accompanied by a changing economic landscape which might have brought materialism into a similar conflict with the traditional values. Increasing materialism undoubtedly also increases anxiety about status in society which can have a negative impact on happiness.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments! I'm glad there's a common question that emerged. It was a definite question in my mind too. The article does clarify about what caused the decrease in GNH.

    The Aric Ho Summary version:

    One highly influential aspect, is that as students become "more educated", their requirements for satisfaction went up.
    Two major factors in this:
    The introduction of Mass Media and Western Consumerism to a developing nation.
    The lack of white-collar jobs in developing nations. As much of their economy is subsistence living, and not focused on "growth".

    Western education in developing countries - and in developed countries, has a strong focus on reaching particular statistics centralized around literacy, math, and science. A lot of curriculum are oriented around producing people who can be proficient workers - which may or may not be applicable to different countries.

    These are extremely important subjects, there's a plethora of information out there that links them to economic performance, future growth of national economies, income levels, etc.

    What's missing, is the same thing as why GNH came out in the first place. We measure performance by $$$, and not by values. Educating for GNH requires a context for learning that drives values, critical thinking, social/emotional intelligence, AS WELL AS Science, math and reading.

    This study, as well as a few others, point out that if we educate based on critical thinking and social/emotional intelligence, students are actually able to score higher on regular standards, as well as be happier.

    The study ends up proposing educational curriculum(which I think are actually being implemented) that focus on those aspects, still promoting "general ed", as well as values.


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