New York: In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan, then just a 17 year old boy, became the very first person in history to make happiness an indicator of economic wellbeing. He coined the term, “Gross National Happiness”. He was committed to building an economy centered on human wellbeing, which would serve Bhutan’s cultural and spiritual values. This was a revolutionary step and it was in stark contrast to the Western notion of “progress” and “development”, which was, and still is, driven by the idea of “economic growth” and measured in “Gross Domestic Product (GDP)”.
Since then, the worldwide happiness movement has grown as more and more countries recognize that economic growth alone cannot be used as an accurate and fair measurement of progress and wellbeing for countries.
In 2012, the United Nations for the very first time recognized “the pursuit of happiness” as a human right and established March 20 as International Day of Happiness. Since then, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) has produced an annual World Happiness Report, which evaluates countries on their levels of happiness.
The World Happiness Report is ultimately about subjective wellbeing and the evaluation of one’s life in the context of their society. Since King Wangchuck’s important step in 1972, there have been many attempts to measure happiness and wellbeing; it’s an area of research that has been rapidly developing since then. The report argues that income matters, but it is far more important for people to live in societies that are prosperous, generous, just and sustainable.
To measure happiness, the report looks at GDP per capita, social support, freedom to make choices, health (both mental and physical), generosity and perception of corruption. The report also compares countries to one another and ranks them according to their happiness levels.
According to the latest version of the report, which was released yesterday at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the top spot was claimed by Norway, followed by Denmark and Iceland. Scandinavian countries have consistently ranked as the happiest nations by the report, which attributes these results to the existence of generous social safety nets and strong welfare systems.
On the other end of the scale, countries such as Central African Republic, Burundi, Syria and Tanzania are ranked as the least happy. Many of these countries are plagued by violent conflict and are rampant with corruption and poverty. These circumstances, in addition to failing education and healthcare systems, weak civil societies and deteriorating infrastructure, have led to a rapid decline of happiness amongst their citizens.
Despite being the richest nation on Earth, with 16.77 Trillion (USD) of GDP, this year the United States ranked 14th in the report, down from 13th in 2016. This may surprise some Americans who expect their country to top the list, but “declining social support and increased corruption” have pushed the United States far behind many others in the developed world. In 2007, United States ranked 3rd among OECD countries, and in less than 10 years it has dropped to 19th.
Policymakers should pay close attention to the findings of the World Happiness Report and challenge the common perception that economic growth and happiness go hand in hand. As the example of the United States demonstrates, a high GDP does not necessarily mean progress, wellbeing and happiness. Instead, policymakers should adopt a holistic approach to human security and invest in social safety nets, make healthcare and education affordable, establish a fair justice system and reduce income inequality. As the findings of the World Happiness Report demonstrate, these policies improve the sense of personal and economic security in citizens and strengthen their faith and trust in their own societies and environments, therefore increasing happiness.
It is also a welcome surprise to learn that the government of the UAE, in partnership with the SDSN, yesterday announced the launch of the World Happiness Council, which will highlight international practices being applied in the adoption of happiness and will celebrate top government achievements in the field.
Inspired by the notions and principles outlined in the report, in September 2015, world leaders from 193 nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); a set of goals which outlines a practical pathway for achieving social inclusion, economic development and environmental sustainability by the year 2030. The SDGs outline the key priorities for human development, set important benchmarks for governments to monitor and evaluate that process, and create opportunities for collaboration amongst civil society organizations, businesses, universities and governments.
As the World Happiness Report proves, it’s important to have economic growth but it is far more important to invest in social and environmental programs and to strengthen the welfare state, since these systems underpin the foundations of healthy and happy societies. They give citizens a safety net to fall back on, improve living conditions, increase faith and trust in institutions of governance and help break the cycle of poverty and crime. These are the same lessons being championed by the Sustainable Development Goals, which have a strong correlation to the key indicators of happiness. Therefore, if policymakers and governments are serious about improving the happiness of their citizens, they must begin to view growth as important, social safety nets as fundamental and the Sustainable Development Goals as a pathway to get there.