Tips, Videos, Handouts, and Other Stuff

A broader look, more than just dollars.

Our two leading national indicators of success – the Dow Jones and the GDP – are out of touch with American reality.

Just last month the Dow Jones Industrial Average (a composite index of the stock value of 30 large companies) hit an all-time high, having about doubled in the past 5 years. Yet for most Americans it doesn’t feel like prosperity has doubled in the past 5 years.

And in spite of the recent covid drop, the GDP (Gross Domestic Product: the value of all goods and services sold in a specific time period) has also steadily increased over the past five years.

By the GDP measure, America looks like the biggest and the best in the world. A staggering 24% of the global economy is right here. Yet also right here we have higher poverty rates and higher infant mortality rates than almost any other developed country in the world. And we pollute more per person than in any other country. According to these and other broader measures of quality of life, it doesn’t feel to me like we are better off here than in other places.

Rather than hearing and reading about the Dow Jones and GDP* all the time, I would rather we looked at a broader set of indicators, perhaps rolled into an index (several measures mathematically combined into a single number).

The World Happiness Report combines 33 indicators from the following 9 domains into a single index: Living standards, Education, Health, Ecological diversity and resilience, Good governance, Time use, Cultural diversity and resilience, Community vitality, Psychological well being.

According to the latest index, the United States ranks 18th in the world in terms of happiness.

Instead of focusing so intently on initiatives to boost the economic numbers, I think Americans would be happier if we paid more attention to public health, community building, environmental protection, and other things known to contribute to happiness.

* Whenever news sources talk about economic growth or the size of “the economy,” they are talking about GDP.

Data Sources: GDP History, GDP Comparison, Poverty, Infant Mortality, Pollution.

Measuring What’s Important to Maine: A 25-year Look Back

In this short video Craig tells some history from his front row seat in Augusta, Maine where he once authored Measures of Growth and other indicators reports. He even shows us his first weekly newsletter. He explains how choosing what to measure serves as a foundation for making public policy. Craig also mentions the GDP and describes some national attempts in the 1990s to install alternative measures of national prosperity.


This video has captions. To see them, click CC on the video screen.


Here’s what Craig says in the video

Hi everybody. Hey it’s Craig Freshley here. How do you measure success? Success of a company? Success of a country? Typically we look at a number, probably an economic number like profit or gross domestic product.

A couple weeks ago a report was published called Measures of Growth and this report defines success of the State of Maine using 29 different indicators. This is a report that I know something about. I was the lead researcher and author of the first eight editions. Let’s take a look.

The report is published annually by the Maine Development Foundation where I used to work. In the nineties there was a growing awareness about sustainable development and the need to define success more broadly than just with economic indicators. So this group came up initially with 57 different indicators in 7 different categories, and for each indicator there is a chart as to where we have been and there’s a benchmark for where we want to be.

In 1997 we went a little crazy and produced a 2-page newsletter every week we mailed them to subscribers, and at the end of the year we bound them up in this book. Fifty-two weekly newsletters. Craig’s first weekly.

You might even call it a fad. There was this sense that whatever you measure gets managed and so countries, states, communities, were developing sets of indicators for all sorts of things; basically things that people wanted to improve in the future.

Here in the State of Maine the Maine Development Foundation — the same group that produced Measures of Growth — was commissioned to produce indicators of Livable Communities, indicators of Maine’s Transportation System, indicators of Maine’s Natural Resource-based Industries, indicators of the Health of Children and Communities, and even one just for a county: Indicators of Sustainable Development.

On a national level the United States was working on an Experimental Set of Indicators. I had the pleasure of working on this experimental set of indicators. I was called to Washington DC. This group was commissioned by President Clinton who at the time also commissioned a President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

In the mid-nineties a Genuine Progress Indicator was proposed: a composite index of 25 or so different things. A much better way to measure progress, the authors contended. While Gross Domestic Product has continued to rise in the United States, genuine progress actually began to level off and decline in the early seventies.

What all of these reports try to do is make the case that quality of life is about more than just a healthy economy. It also depends on healthy community (social issues) and of course it depends on a healthy environment. And so we have indicators not just about economic health but also community health and environmental health. This experimental set of indicators for the United States same 3 categories; economic, environmental, social.

The idea behind all of this is the notion that by calling out specific indicators we can influence policy in such a way that influences those indicators, that moves those needles or raises or lowers those graphs. This is a statement as to what is most important to the state of Maine and as citizens and policy makers and businesses it works well if we try to work on these issues.

As you look back at the past year and look forward to the year ahead, either on your own behalf or thinking of a group that you’re part of, consider how you would measure success. You need not be limited to economic indicators.

Thanks for listening everybody. I hope this helps your group make good decisions.

Practical benefits of giving

Giving isn’t just for fun, it can be life-saving.

Giving to others is the bedrock of step 12; the part of all 12-step recovery programs that says you gotta give to others as a strategy to save yourself. It’s a practical matter.

How many movies have we seen where — at death’s door — someone’s will to live comes from their need to give something to someone else?

Stuck in a rut? Find a person or project to give to. At the very least it will be a distraction and might get you out of your own way.

The research is clear. Giving money to another person is more likely to lift your spirits than spending money on yourself. See Money spent on others can buy happiness in the Harvard Gazette.

This New York Times article — Spend More on Society and Get More for Yourself — explains that American individualism has made individuals unhappy and, too frequently, sick. Another social research study finds that when people give to charities it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. See the Jorge Moll and colleagues paper at the National Institutes of Health website.