Why GDP needs a partner: the Canadian Index of Wellbeing

Do you care more about the length of your commute or today’s GDP numbers? It’s time we cared about both

Will anyone go to sleep tonight worried about how much money is circulating in the economy? Tomorrow, StatCan releases GDP numbers for the first quarter of 2017, and expectations are very positive. Online, print and TV news will dissect strengths, weaknesses, extenuating factors and forecasts. Investors will fuss and speculate about productivity, housing bubbles or how long already indebted consumers can keep spending.

GDP is important; but it’s incomplete. It does not capture what we care about most.

Even in good economic times, affordable housing, affordable food and precarious work are on the minds of millions of Canadians. Millions more yearn for shorter commutes and more time to spend with friends, family, volunteering or even sleeping. Canadians value their health and the vitality of their communities, but GDP doesn’t capture any of it. In fact, higher costs in the health care system or the costs of disaster response inflate GDP numbers – as if they were positive contributions to our quality of life. GDP tells us nothing about the kind of world we are creating for ourselves and future generations, and whether we are making progress or losing ground.

It’s time we paid as much attention to our quality of life as we do to economic growth.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) crystalizes the results of 64 quality of life indicators and compares the results to changes in GDP. The CIW also shows where our strengths and challenges lie in the domains that matter most to Canadians: community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards and time use. And, it identifies important inter-relationships between domains so we can start thinking about upstream solutions and measuring their impact.

It’s time we put wellbeing at the heart of public policy.

We can proactively enhance wellbeing without having a negative impact on economic growth. It’s not a zero-sum game. In fact, the opposite is true. So closely inter-related are the wellbeing domains, that improving education or health, for example, has a positive impact on living standards and community vitality. Rising inequality of income and of opportunity over the past decades have shown there is no trickle down. Therefore, there must be a shoring up of health, education, democratic and community participation.

CIW vs GDP line graphToday, GDP growth and wellbeing are badly out of synch.

Between 1994 and 2014, GDP rose by 38 per cent, dwarfing the 9.9 per cent growth in the CIW. It’s like spending all of your time at the office and none of your time living your life, or like a pilot relying on only one instrument rather than the whole panel.

Since the old adage of “you treasure what you measure” holds true, it’s time we track and treasure our wellbeing as much as we track and treasure economic indicators. It’s time we nurture wellbeing as much as we foster economic growth.

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