Should countries make happiness a priority?

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Should we put more emphasis on being happy? (Photo: Rachel Kramer, Flickr/Creative Commons)

As we reported at the end of last year (“Happy Happy New Year!”), the idea that nations should pay attention not just to Gross National Product (GNP) but also to Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been spreading slowly since it was introduced by the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s.

This week, GNH will get more attention at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  During this conference, leaders from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to explore how nations can combat poverty while ensuring environmental protection. While the agenda includes an array of topics such as job creation, food security, and sustainable cities, attendees will also try to answer this question:  Are economic measures of growth enough to determine a nation’s well being?

For Bhutan, a landlocked country in South Asia, the answer is still no.  At the conference, Bhutan will present a paper based on the work of its Center for Bhutan Studies, which measures the nation’s GNH. The center examines nine domains of happiness – including health, education, time use, and good governance – and uses the results to craft recommendations for policy makers, NGOs, and businesses. Though it started as an informal alternative to the Gross National Product (GNP), today more civic leaders around the world are wondering if the GNH provides more holistic picture of a community’s wellbeing.

Starting in our communities

Sustainable Seattle used the concept in my hometown to develop a local happiness index through The Happiness Initiative. The project has two components: a set of objective statistics used to create a profile of the region’s progress toward sustainability, and a personal survey that anyone can take. The results of the first survey completed in 2011 (summary shown in a graph on page 10 of The Happiness Report Card [PDF]), reveal that my neighbors feel a strong sense of trust and community support, yet struggle with time balance.  The Happiness Initiative also developed a set a of recommendations for policy makers and community members to tackle the challenges presented in the survey.

The Happiness Initiative is branching out beyond Seattle and attempting to measure the country’s happiness. Their first national survey conducted in March 2012, for example, indicated Americans are more satisfied with the state of the environment, education, arts, and culture than with government and time balance.  The Happiness Initiative is collecting more national data now; you can contribute to the next report yourself here.

What do you think? Should we expand the ways communities — and nations — measure progress and success?

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Comments (4)


  1. Nick writes:
    June 21, 2012 at 11:34 am

    The concept pf ‘Gross National Happiness’ is an interesting one, and has both potential benefits and pitfalls. The major benefit is a wider conception of human life, rather than GNP (or equivalent), which lessens the emphasis on GNP as a measure of ‘progress’ or ‘wellbeing’. The problem is, however, that even if happiness is in some way able to be accurately measured (highly doubtful), knowing about the presence or absence of happiness does not constitute knowledge about the absence or presence about what might be considered a ‘good life’, which is perhaps an even higher goal. That is, a life that is well considered, and/or meaningful to you in some way. Another important factor to consider is that people may have good reason to be not happy, and that happiness is not necessarily a sign that things are going well, if happiness comes as a result of a lack of knowledge about the true situation, for example (which is why it is sometimes said that “ignorance is bliss”). We should not pursue happiness if it blinds us to the existence of real social, economic or political inequalities and legitimate grievances.

    This is not to say aiming for happiness is bad; there is a lot to be said about living in a society in which there is a greater attempt at mutual undersanding and a greater sense of enjoying each other’s company as well as generally enjoying what society (ours and others) have to offer. Nevertheless, we must not consider a Gross National Happiness index a sufficient measure of society’s health, even if taken with other factors, since it is ultimately about each person’s lived experience, which can only be quantified or measured very roughly.

    I do not know if there is or could be a better measure than Gross National Happiness (GNH) to measure overall social progress. If we are to use GNH, we must be aware of these limitations, and use it amongst other measures as well as our own experience.


  2. Putnam Barber writes:
    June 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful note. Stretching the definition of national (or community) progress beyond the limits of easily measured (market) transactions seems a good idea to me. Refining the methods of measuring, and maybe the labels used, are works in progress – and further explorations and discussions can be expected, even encouraged.


  3. Celeste Hamilton Dennis writes:
    June 24, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Nice blog, Put!

    Check out the Balloons of Bhutan project from Jonathan Harris: http://balloonsofbhutan.org.

    “In late 2007, I spent two weeks in Bhutan, interviewing 117 different people about different aspects of happiness. I asked people to rate their level of happiness between 1 and 10, and then inflated that number of balloons, so very happy people would be given 10 balloons, and very sad people would be given only one. I also asked each person to make a wish, and then wrote that wish on a balloon of their favorite color.”

    So beautiful!


  4. April Greene writes:
    June 25, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Nice! I wonder if the less-happy people should have been given the greater number of balloons, though… :)


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