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Friday FTW: The crazy concept of happiness and progress

Catherine McIntyre

On Wednesday the UN asked us all to forget our misery; forget our stressful, routine, depressing lives and just cheer up. People all over the world listened and marked the first International Day of Happiness with events such as “laughter yoga” in Hong Kong, positive message posters at the London Liverpool train station, and free hug flash mobs in Washington (to victims of these mobs, my deepest condolences).

But happiness day wasn’t just about getting your grin on. The idea is to recognize happiness and well-being as valuable measures of growth.

Most of the world measures growth and development through gross domestic product, where increase in GDP means progress. The problem is a lot of terrible things inflate GDP. Like oil spills and wars.

As the prime minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinley, said:

Economic growth is mistakenly seen as synonymous with well-being. The faster we cut down forests and haul in fish stocks to extinction, the more GDP grows. Even crime, war, sickness and natural disasters make GDP grow, simply because these ills cause money to be spent … We need to rethink our entire growth-based economy so that we can thrive more effectively on our own resources in harmony with nature. We do not need to accept as inevitable a world of impending climate chaos and financial collapse.

In Bhutan, a small country on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, happiness defines progress. It’s the only country where gross national happiness (GNH) replaces GDP. Bhutan’s happiness index measures factors such as cultural preservation, environmental quality, physical and psychological health, and good governance. These values are entrenched in the country’s policies with mandates that require the country to be carbon neutral and leave 60 percent of the land covered in forest. School enrollment for Bhutanese children is 100 percent, and export logging is banned.

The idea is to reduce needs to match the available resources; to strive for happiness rather than material gains. But when you’re constantly trying to maximize your resources—a la Western capitalism—your needs (or wants) increase in parallel. To fulfill our insatiable neediness, we increase our goods and services. This is what we call “growing the economy”.

For years, renegade economists have challenged this type of progress. Jeff Rubin, among others, predicted an “end of growth” economy and called for a “holistic” economic approach that factors in well-being. These economists were mostly ignored until the stock markets crashed and natural disasters became a first world problem. Clearly we’re doing something wrong.

So last April, the UN discussed “new economic paradigm” inspired by Bhutan’s gross national happiness initiative. Three months later, the UN declared March 20 International Day of Happiness, recognizing the importance of well-being in public policy.

The trouble is: how do we measure happiness? Subjective happiness is easy. Just measure someone’s general life satisfaction through surveys and questionnaires. The trickier measure, objective happiness, looks at more universal ideals presumably linked to well-being, like health levels, crime rates, literacy and life expectancy.

There’s no consensus on how policy-makers can apply well-being scores to economics or even how being happier can help the economy. The good news is people are talking about it—reminding each other that happiness is really the only important thing in life. And not just happiness for ourselves but for other people and future generations.

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