Gross National Happiness
When asked which countries in the world are the best-off, the conventional reaction is to look at the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or GNP (Gross National Product) of that country. These are extremely crude measures of economic activity – not necessarily even measuring real production.
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It has become apparent, firstly that a country’s GDP/GNP do not correlate very closely with the well-being of the citizens, and secondly, that GDP/GNP are dangerous measures to use, since they encourage the profligate of resources regardless of environmental and long-term consequences.
For thirty years the small Himalayan country of Bhutan has regarded its Gross National Happiness - GNH - as the key measure of progress, rather than GNP. It has been successful. The United Nations-commissioned World Happiness Report just released rates Bhutan as Asia’s happiest country.
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The Report showed that while rich countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands led the rankings of the happiest countries (with evaluations averaging 7.6/10) and poor nations like Togo, Benin, Central African Republic and Sierra Leone ranked among the least happy (3.4/10), it was actually social factors such as the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom that were more important than economic strength.
Jeffery Sachs, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report, said that happiness could be achieved independent of economic strength as measured by GNP: ‘GNP by itself does not promote happiness. The USA has had a three time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn't budged. Other countries have pursued other policies and achieved much greater gains of happiness, even at much lower levels of per capita income’.
The World Happiness Report offers some practical suggestions for governments to promote happiness including helping people meet their basic needs, reinforcing social systems, implementing active employment policies, improving mental health services, promoting compassion, altruism and honesty, and helping the public resist hyper-commercialism.
The release of the Report was timed to coincide with the UN High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-being: defining a New Economic Paradigm’, held at the UN headquarters in New York on 2 April 2012. Many distinguished speakers and participants contributed to proceedings, including Mark Gerzon, a member of Our Future Planet’s Advisory Board.
The meeting was convened by the Government of Bhutan and Bhutan's Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley opened the meeting arguing that, ‘The GDP-lead development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. Within its framework, there lies no solution to the economic, ecological, social and security crises that plague the world today and threaten to consume humanity’.
He noted that humanity needs an economy that serves and nurtures the wellbeing of all sentient beings on earth and human happiness that comes from living life in harmony with the natural world, with our communities and with our inner selves. Therefore, he said, ‘The purpose of development must be to create enabling conditions through public policy for the pursuit of the ultimate goal of happiness by all citizens’.
This was echoed by many other speakers including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who thanked the Government of Bhutan for initiating the meeting. He agreed that while material prosperity is important, it is far from being the only determinant of well-being. He singled out Bhutan and Costa Rica as countries which, though far from wealthy, have pioneered new approaches to holistic and environmentally responsible development and are beacons of peace and democracy.
Ban called for ‘a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness’.
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The meeting heard many fine words, but what will be the practical results of this report and this meeting?
As Martine Durand, OECD Chief Statistician, noted, there has to be an integrated set of progress and well-being measures including income and wealth; jobs and working conditions; health; the time we have for families and friends; our ties with other people; our capacity to act as informed citizens; the quality of the environment; and our experiences of violence and victimisation.
The meeting must be considered in a wider context. The fact that it was supported by many governments, and that it attracted such a wealth of influential speakers and variety of organisations, including mainstream ones, is another indication that the neoliberal economic orthodoxy is losing ground. Where it was once seen as a solution, it has now been identified as the problem.
The meeting and report are precursors to the ‘Rio+20’ Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Rio de Janeiro on 20-22 June 2012. Sustainable development recognizes that economic, social and environmental objectives are not competing goals that must be traded off against each other, but are interconnected and most effectively pursued cooperatively. Rio+20 will aim to connect issues of water supply, food provision, energy security, climate change, urbanization, poverty, inequality and the empowerment of the world’s women.
But alongside consideration of practical solutions to these material issues is needed a confirmation that happiness and well-being have to measured in more than gross national income and that they are fundamental goals in themselves.
The webcast of some of the proceedings of the meeting can be seen at
Tim Powell, Our Future Planet
You miss out big questions here Tim. It's quite a crude summation of the issues and a skeletal synopsis of the meeting itself. Check out this article in contrast with your own - I believe it will be useful in expanding the discussion and highlighting some of the key issues.
Whilst I think it's great that governments are looking into how we can all be more happy, it concerns me that the only way we can justify such an approach is through measuring, quantifying, giving it a price and essentially comodifying happiness. What are your thoughts?
Well, Danny, that's a most fascinating and thought-provoking article but I should say in my defence that it's not really a report on the meeting but a discussion paper on a central theme that the author doesn't think was really considered at it!
Speaking philosophically, I do personally think there is a connection between material well-being, or rather the nature of the economic and social relations behind it, and things we think of as the qualities comprising happiness.
Well, the piece cited is interesting and thought-provoking but not really a report (even a skeletal one) of the meeting, more a commentary on an aspect that wasn't covered by it. I confess am not entirely convinced by it for a number of reasons, one example being the author's sentimental attitude to non-capitalist societies such as the rather naive view of gift-giving which easily becomes a deeply competitive and destructive process.