The Happiness Agenda: Can the UN Help Develop a Happier World?

Economics alone don't tell us much about people's wellbeing, but the leaders of Bhutan think they have a better way.

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Couple smiles with their faces covered in colored powder during Holi festival celebrations in Kuala Lumpur. Reuters

At first glance, today's high-level event in the UN General Assembly would appear to confirm the worst suspicions of UN skeptics. Given all the crises engulfing the globe, what geniuses in New York decided to have the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan host a daylong special session on "Happiness." What the heck is going on in Turtle Bay?

More than meets the eye, in fact. One of the hottest fields in development economics has been, believe it or not, happiness research. And it turns out that the government in Thimpu may have something wise to say on the subject.

In recent years, a small but influential group of economists has concluded that traditional measurements of national progress, typically couched in terms of per capita Gross National Product (GNP), don't actually tell us much about the wellbeing of citizens. This is partly a critique of modernization theory, which suggests that human welfare advances in lockstep with material enrichment. In fact, as pioneering researchers like Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland have shown, there's little correlation between national income and contentment. Some of the highest levels of happiness have been recorded in low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

This comes as no news to the Bhutanese. Although one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income the World Bank estimates at $670, Bhutan is also, according to Business Week, the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world. Some forty years ago, the grandfather of the current constitutional monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, began popularizing the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to replace GNP as a gauge of national progress. Improbably, the concept has taken off.

Over the past decade, the 800,000-person kingdom has become a Mecca--or rather Shangri-la--for Western policymakers and development experts seeking enlightenment on the secrets of national happiness in an age of globalization. Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureates both, are converts. So too is Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and tireless campaigner for the Millennium Development Goals. On August 10-12 of last year, Sachs traveled to Thimpu to co-host with Prime Minister Jigme Thinley the Bhutan Conference on Happiness and Economic Development.

Two weeks later, Bhutan hit the big-time, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 65/309 (PDF) titled, "Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development." Endorsing the monarchy's basic point, the resolution conceded: "the gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being in a country." More pointedly, it implied that public policies in many countries have encouraged "unsustainable patterns of production and consumption," at the expense of "a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of peoples."

Monday's high-Level meeting on "Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm" raises the GNH concept to new heights. Prince Charles will address the event with a pre-recorded message, and both Sachs and Stiglitz will speak, alongside national and international dignitaries, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The conversation will likely recapitulate themes from last year's conference, which called on governments to integrate a "happiness agenda" into public policy. Some proposed steps seem sensible, such as reducing extreme suffering and deprivation, focusing on education, empowering local communities, protecting ecological systems, and investing in mental health. But other proposals could prove more controversial, for instance building "awareness and avoidance of pure status goods," to say nothing of "controlling the media in a way that doesn't limit freedom but restrains the creation of artificial cravings." Such aspirations could lend themselves to caricature, as blatant assaults on the free market by misguided social engineers seeking to escape modernity.

The champions of GNH have tried to inoculate themselves from this critique. "The happiness agenda should not be considered anti-technological or anti-material," reads the conference summary from last August. "There is no going back to a simpler life, for a basic arithmetic reason. We are now seven billion people with a tremendous difficulty of provision, meeting the needs of people, being able to operate complex societies. Any attempt to turn back technology would lead to devastation."

The Tea Party, in other words can breathe easy. The Buddhists of Bhutan have no designs on the capitalist system, or the rest of our freedoms. In fact, the Land of the Thunder Dragon may have more in common with the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than you might imagine. After all, they share the fundamental aspiration enunciated in America's founding document: the pursuit of happiness.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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