The International Language of Happiness

The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Thinley, presided over the United Nations (U.N.) conference in a beautiful gold and ruby striped gho. Thinley is a small man with a broad smile. As he spoke, his demeanor was calm and welcoming, even if his words were not.

“Mankind is like a meteor, blazing toward self-immolation along with all other life forms,” he said, gazing evenly at the rapt crowd.

It’s not the typical stuff of U.N. meetings, but then the “High Level Meeting on Happiness and Wellbeing” hosted by the government of Bhutan on Monday was not your typical U.N. meeting. Sure, Excellencies were graciously thanked. Polite bows were executed. Headsets worn. But the dignitary-studded crowd of more than 600 also heard from experts on meditation, and were invited to contemplate their oneness with the universe. This may have been the only U.N. conference where several speakers referenced both Buddha and Aristotle.

This first ever meeting of its kind and caliber was organized with a specific goal: to devise a new global paradigm for assessing the progress of a country—one that incorporates human well-being and happiness. The current idea might be reduced, as it often was throughout the day, to the gross domestic product (GDP), the almost 80-year-old economic measure that represents the total market value of all the goods and services a country makes. GDP doesn’t reflect a number of other critical factors, such as social connections, whether people feel safe, how much time they have to spend with their families and friends, or the likelihood that the growth being measured will result in a paralyzing economic crisis sometime soon. Plus, since GDP is an average, it can, as it has in the United States, go up even as most individuals’ incomes go down. All of which helps explain how so many people in the world—and in this country—can be miserable even as we produce more and more.

As Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia’s Earth Institute pointed out, “The U.S. has had a three time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn’t budged.”

There’s a certain irony to having Bhutan, one of the poorest nations on the globe, bring this issue to the world’s attention; poor countries are the ones that can still expect an increase in GDP to boost their national happiness levels. This makes sense, of course. Hunger, disease, and the other problems of poverty can severely cut into joy. And it’s no surprise that the least happy nations—Benin, Togo, the Central African Republic, and Sierra Leone, according to the fascinating World Happiness Report that the Earth Institute launched at the conference—are also some of the poorest.

The truth is that poor countries have much to gain from shifting the unblinking global focus on money by  replacing GDP as the dominant national measure—and that rich countries may benefit even more. The challenge is to convince them of this: that there’s more to life than the market, that it’s possible to broaden our gaze without falling behind economically, and that our obsessive attention to material wealth not only does little to remedy the fat, alienated, time-starved malaise that plagues so many Westerners; it at least partly causes it.

But how to be both productive and happy? For guidance, we might look to Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands—the four happiest countries, according to the happiness report. The rankings are based on data gathered from the Gallup Poll asking people in 150 countries to rank their life from the “worst” to the “best possible life.”

Elsewhere in Europe, governments have already taken the daunting first step toward improving national happiness: measuring it. Britain has created an independent office of the national statistics division that’s surveyed 200,000 of its people about their various contents and discontents. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a European group that promotes economic and social well-being around the world, has begun a lengthy process of issuing guidelines for member countries to gather happiness data. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy had already embarked upon incorporating well-being, happiness, and other social indicators into France’s economic measures back in 2009, heeding the recommendations of a report he commissioned by Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amatrya Sen.

At the conference, Stiglitz and Martine Durand, the OECD’s chief statistician, used their presentations to quell fears that happiness is too slippery a notion for government work. Apparently, high-level meetings about the tricky nature of assessing the psychological state of the globe are also well underway, with teams of economists and psychologists carefully distinguishing between life satisfaction, overall happiness, and positive affect; attending to differences of culture, and differences between long-term or short-term happiness; and attempting to standardize the impact of external forces such as employment, income and government.

Even more encouraging than the news that happiness is measurable is that it’s teachable. After all, the point of assessing well-being is to ultimately improve it. Bhutanese government leaders have gone so far as to institute the teaching of meditation in all schools. Bhutan has also taken the lead in collecting data, having launched its Gross National Happiness measure in 2010, which tracks satisfaction—happiness versus unhappiness—in nine domains, including psychological well-being, health, time use, cultural diversity, and community vitality.

Both in Bhutan and globally, the policy implications of considering human as well as economic impacts are far greater than meditation classes, of course. Health policies, particularly those affecting the availability of mental-health services, would likely look far different if misery were factored into the cost-benefit analyses now measured solely in dollars. In this country, the obvious case for instituting family-leave, sick days and vacation policy could finally be recognized. Governments would have the numbers they needed to craft policies that promote strong social connections and altruism, both of which are associated with happiness.

Alas, in the United States, anyway, politics is destined to hinder, if not halt, the march to happiness. While the Obama administration recently funded an investigation into the possibility of developing a measure of subjective well-being, actual movement toward data collection and use are still well down the road. It’s not hard to imagine the bumps likely to appear on that road. If a plastic bag ban is an action of the nanny state, what’s a meditation class—or the American mood-boosting equivalent? In a country where one man’s health care is another’ assault on the Constitution, can we assume good health is a positive indicator? Clearly some Americans think happiness is a warm gun, or perhaps freedom from government entirely. Indeed, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks already made that case in his 2008 book on GNH, which was the right’s attack on the emerging happiness movement. That the mounting science doesn’t back up his claims hasn’t seemed to matter.

No doubt, it will help the American cause that much of the rest of the world is coming to recognize the importance of gauging human mood and using that information to shape law and policy. And Monday’s unprecedented summit made that much clear. It was, as Prime Minister Thinley put it, “a happy and historic moment.”

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