Given the continual stagnation of the US economy, it’s not surprising the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has become a questionable measure of our country’s worth. But what should take its place?
For some time, the small Buddhist nation of Bhutan has preferred Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of progress—a reflection of the culture’s preference for emotional well-being over the production of goods and services. In the US, the American Human Development Project has identified several American measures of well-being—health, education, and income—to create a new way of measuring our country’s worth: the Human Development (HD) Index.
I visited the website of the American Human Development Project and explored their detailed, interactive maps. The indexes reveal dramatically different levels of well-being across the US, depending on such factors as geographical location, gender, and cultural group. Whereas the results are not startling—the unfair and unequal distribution of resources and well-being in America is common knowledge—I was struck by the irony that our country is named the United States of America. Looking at the maps generated according to the HD Index, a more apt moniker might by the Alienated States of America, much as divisions between Red and Blue states have implied.
I was also intrigued by one of the conclusions drawn in a news release by the Project’s co-directors, Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis:
“The report presents strong evidence that the capabilities a person has going into a crisis—ranging from a financial downturn to a man-made or natural disaster—strongly determine how fast he or she can bounce back.”
I assume these “capabilities” have to do with the level of a person’s education, income, and healthcare. Certainly, having these resources will increase the likelihood that a person recovers from a crisis, or traumatic event. Yet I think these resources have become a significant measure of recovery because our society is more alienated than united—and disasters have become measures of individual resilience rather than community cohesiveness.
I propose another measure of our country’s and citizens’ well-being: the Communal Response to Trauma (CRT) Index, which would be a measure of the communal response to disasters, crises, and other traumatic upheavals, such as sending young people to war.
What would the CRT Index measure? In short, it would assess the society’s commitment to restoring the hope and integrity of all its members following traumatic experiences. This could include evaluating:
- Psychological openness to the impact of traumatic events. As trauma theorist Judith Herman has pointed out, “Repression, dissociation and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness.” The CRT could start the communal practice of speaking openly about traumatic events instead of silencing their effects through addictions, dissociation, projection, shame, guilt, and other behaviors, psychological mechanisms, and emotions that often emerge when healing from trauma is not a socially sanctioned activity;
- The presence of myths, rituals, and legends that model communal responses to trauma. The focus would be on stories and narratives that model compassion, grieving, and support rather than rage, revenge, and denial; and
- The creation of public spaces devoted to healing trauma’s effects. These spaces would transcend cultural groups, age, gender, sexual orientation, income, education, and all other “measures” of difference. They would support healing through dialogue, community activities, and self-expression, witnessing both trauma’s effects as well as the healing capacity of the human spirit. Historically, places of worship and clinics have served this function. Yet, given the dramatic increase in crises and disasters, no longer can healing trauma be primarily a responsibility of one or two sectors of society.
The best measure of a country’s worth may be its ability to protect citizens from overwhelming stressful experiences. Indeed, the belief that uniting the colonies would provide such protection contributed to the creation of the United States of America. However, given such collective traumas as the impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars on veterans and their families, the pervasiveness of social ills such as domestic violence and racism, and continued economic hardship for many (to name just a few of our collective traumas) only the most optimistic believe in the US’s capacity to deal with overwhelming stressful experiences. Perhaps the most we can hope for is a return to a sense that we are the United States of America, which may require an awareness of how traumatic our history has been—as well as our collective need to heal from trauma, which measures like the GDP have unwittingly ignored.
Herman, Judith. 1997. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.
© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).