THE QUESTION OF GROWTH
The most provocative issue raised by the new research on happiness is whether Americans are wise to place such a high priority on increasing and sustaining economic growth. In claiming that the added possessions people crave do not necessarily bring lasting happiness, investigators have not only attacked a major aim of government policy; they have called into question a central premise of economics—namely, that consumers are the best judge of their own welfare so that one can reasonably assume that a rising per capita Gross National Product will provide a corresponding increase in well-being. The implica- tions of this critique are profound. If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?
The constant expansion of goods and services has become so basic to the American way of life that it is hard even to imagine what the consequences would be if Americans came to believe that it added little or nothing to their well-being. Economic growth is now the most influential single measure of our national vitality and progress. Quarterly reports on the changes in our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are widely publicized everywhere. The trends they record are the principal measure for comparing America's progress with that of other countries. The chairman of the Federal Reserve periodically appears before Congressional committees to report on the prospects for faster or slower growth. Policy proposals in Con- gress live or die on the basis of their estimated effects on the rate of economic expansion.