Gross national happiness is more important than GDP

Jumping for joy: World Happiness Day will be marked today when the UN invites each person of any age, plus every classroom, business and government to celebrate the day. Picture: Flickr

Once a year, there is a day when the seven billion inhabitants of Planet Earth should feel happy or at least are encouraged to do so – that’s World Happiness Day, which is marked every year on March 20. So far, so good.

But what is happiness all about? And who are the world’s happiest people – or at least the happy ones?

According to the promoters, the UN: “It’s literally a day to be happy, of course!” Consequently, the world body has since 2013 celebrated the International Day of Happiness “as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world”.

Now the UN launched 17 sustainable development goals that seek “to end poverty, reduce inequality, and protect our planet – three key aspects that lead to well-being and happiness”. Fine!

Seeing that this is a really sound idea, the UN invites each person “of any age, plus every classroom, business and government to celebrate the International Day of Happiness using #SmallSmurfsBigGoals”.

It asks you to pledge to create more happiness in the world and to share your happiness with the world.

All this is fine. But how was the idea of celebrating a world happiness day conceived and when? Which countries are the happiest? And, more importantly, are people really happy?

The idea, according to former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in his address in April 2012 to a high-level meeting on Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm, is that the world “needs a new economic paradigm that recognises the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.”

The meeting was convened at an initiative of small (770000 inhabitants) but great Asian country of Bhutan, which already in the early ’70s recognised the “supremacy” of national happiness over national income and famously adopted the goal of gross national happiness (GNH) over gross national product (GNP), which measures the total value of goods and services produced by a country in one year, including profits made in foreign countries.

The happy kingdom of Bhutan, the Buddhist kingdom on the Himalaya’s eastern edge, which is known for its monasteries, fortresses (or dzongs) and dramatic landscapes that range from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys, has been so far the first-ever country to apply the supremacy of people’s happiness – measured in terms of people’s happiness, over macro-economic indicators.

In that period, in the 1970s, developing countries were focused on increasing economic success to help develop prosperity.

However, Bhutan’s king Jigme Singye Wangchuck believed an economic approach dehumanised the development process. Therefore, he instead decided to focus on a concept that he precisely called gross national happiness.

For that there is an institution – the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, which works precisely on the gross national happiness. It is an autonomous government organisation, mandated to carry out research on GNH.

Its first pilot GNH survey was carried out in 2006 with 350 respondents.

The questionnaire was further refined after the pilot survey and it was administered to 950 respondents from 12 dzongkhags (administrative and judicial districts). It was again reviewed and refined for a nation-wide GNH survey which was carried out in 2010.

The survey’s result was then used to develop the indicators and set benchmark values for the different indicators that were used for the GNH index.

The next nationwide GNH survey was carried out in 2015. The results of both these surveys are available here, showing the people are happy.

The happy emirates of the Gulf is another small (around 6 million inhabitants) but rich country (second richest in the Gulf after Saudi Arabia) – the United Arab Emirates, which has created a Ministry of Happiness.

It is a federation of seven emirates, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain, located in the southeast end of the Arabian peninsula.

And it decided a year ago to create a Ministry for Happiness as part of the largest-ever government reshuffling that implied the appointment of a cabinet of 30 ministers and secretary of state, including eight women.

The youngest woman minister – only 22 years old, Ohoud al-Roumi, was appointed as minister of state for happiness. Her mission is to drive policy “to create social good and satisfaction”.

In 2016, the government of Dubai established the Ministry of Happiness and referenced GNH as the background for the initiative.

Moreover, a new post of minister of state for tolerance was also created to promote such virtue “as a fundamental value in UAE society”. Another woman, Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi, heads this ministry.

In the same year, 2016, Thailand launched its own GNH initiative.

And The Happy Women of Brazil where the GNH concept evolved through the contribution of international and local scholars and researchers to become an initiative beyond the borders of Bhutan.

The idea of measuring people’s happiness has been gradually extended to other countries.

For instance, in the year 2012, studies showed that Brazilian women are happy. Not only happy – they declared being much happier than men.

According to a study published five years ago by Brazilian Bubble, which provides the business and financial community with an economic and investment perspective on Brazil, on a scale of zero to 10, the Brazilians had to rate their current perception of happiness and expectations of future joy.

Averaging 8.98 against 8.51 for the Danish women (second place), Brazilian women showed their grace and optimism about life, given that the international average was 6.74.

Last place in the ranking were the women of Zimbabwe, with 4.04. – IPS

-Baher Kamal