Are you happy?
While this may sound like a frivolous question, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and increasingly around the world, happiness is serious business.
Last month for the first time ever, the United Nations held a conference on happiness, with over 600 global delegates. This came after a happiness resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly last summer. The leader in this movement was Bhutan.
In 2005, the Royal Government of Bhutan developed Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicators in order to measure happiness in the way that many other countries measure economic progress. In 2007, the first Gross National Happiness survey was completed in Bhutan with about 950 participants, with the survey questionnaire including about 750 variables “which are objective, subjective, and open-ended in nature,” according to the Gross National Happiness website. Then in 2010 another GNH survey was completed in Bhutan with 7,142 participants across both rural and urban settings. The most recent survey was based on 72 different indicators across nine domains, which include community vitality, time use and psychological wellbeing.
The idea behind GNH is that progress should not only be measured economically. The richest countries in the world aren’t necessarily the happiest, or healthiest, and the reverse is true as well. The success of our societies should be measured on “people's overall quality of life, not just their standard of living,” urged Dr. Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness, a movement of people taking action to create a happier society, in an article in The Guardian. “Economic growth can of course be beneficial, for example, by lifting people out of poverty; but it can also come with unwanted side-effects, like increases in inequality, mental illness and environmental damage. The economy is a means to an end; the ultimate end is the happiness of the people.”
At the United Nations Happiness Conference last month, Bhutanese prime minister, Jigmi Thinley, said in his opening address that the world was “deeply troubled” and that the focus on wealth creation at any cost was not healthy.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of happiness as a fundamental human goal and aspiration, but warned that many are just trying to survive, making happiness an unachievable goal.
US economist Jeffery Sachs, who is a special advisor to Ban Ki-Moon, pointed out that although the United States has had a threefold increase in GNP per capita since 1960, there has not been a corresponding increase in happiness. Meanwhile, other countries, he said, have much greater levels of happiness and much lower per capita income. In conjunction with the conference, Sachs and colleagues John Helliwell and Richard Layard released the World Happiness Report, which said that happiness could be achieved independently of economic progress.
The outcome of the conference was a commitment from the delegates to put happiness and wellbeing at the forefront of global discussions of Sustainable Development at the major Rio+20 conference this June in Brazil. This includes ensuring that wellbeing forms part of the new Millennium Development Goals, which will be revamped and renamed Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.