Indexing happiness

Indexing happiness

September 22, 2009 21:54
4 minute read.

Overworked, underappreciated? No time for family? No time to stop and smell the flowers? Worried about the intellectual capacity of politicians of all stripes and questioning the effectiveness of public policy? Exasperated by the UN's lack of response to the genocide in Darfur? Hopeful that the latest Middle East peace initiative will take? With so much to be unhappy about, the new year provides time to reflect, especially during Succot, on what we are thankful for, what we are happy about. It's a good time to ponder what we mean by happiness - what would make the world a better place? Whether in our own homes or in relations with other countries, what is it that would bring more happiness into our world, and how do we know if we are happy? For the answer, we can check the Happy Planet Index from the New Economics Foundation (NEF). It puts Canada at number 89 (out of 143 countries) - well ahead of the US, which ranks 114 in the May 2009 index. And that is a country whose Declaration of Independence enshrines life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the inalienable rights that governments exist to procure on behalf of their people. That was 1776. With the passing of 300 years, you'd think there would have been more progress on the happiness front. But it depends how you define happiness. NEF focuses on life expectancy, life satisfaction and ecological footprint, leading it to come up with numbers that place much of the developed world in the bottom half of the list. SOME GOVERNMENTS have attempted to quantify happiness. In 1972, the king of Bhutan (currently at 17 on the Happy Planet Index) made the happiness of his people a national priority, proclaiming that his nation's priority is not its "gross national product" but its GNH, or "gross national happiness." Concerned with the adverse impact of economic development, he wanted to ensure that prosperity would be shared across Bhutan while preserving its precious cultural heritage and traditions. After 30 years, this policy has had an impact. Driven by Buddhist precepts that promote both collective interests and individual selflessness, combined with a sense of cultural preservation, the Bhutanese have created a paradigm of collective and individual happiness. Bhutan's version of happiness is built on four pillars: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation of culture and good governance (i.e. democracy). So is Bhutan perfectly happy? No, but number 17 is not bad. The 100,000 ethnic-Nepali refugees from Bhutan living in refugee camps in Nepal may not be so happy with their representation in its good governance model. That and technological change/economic development pose significant problems for Bhutan's pursuit of happiness, as Bhutan's rising suicide rate attests. But many countries higher up the index than Canada have significant challenges to happiness. Even without peace in the Middle East, Israel is at 67 and the Palestinian Authority at 56. That is the NEF perspective - but what other perspectives on happiness could we measure? France's President Nicolas Sarkozy may be about to take happiness indices mainstream. On September 14, he spoke of the need to focus on what a country consumes and on its well-being as opposed to just looking at what it produces. He called for change in the way France and other countries view economic statistics. Sarkozy was speaking about a report in which economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen advocate a shift in emphasis "from measuring economic production to measuring people's well-being." They suggest including factors such as living standards (income, consumption, wealth), health, education, personal activities, political voice and governance, social connections and relationships, and environment and insecurity (economic and physical). Such an index might produce quite a different ranking than NEF's Happy Planet Index. I remember both my grandfathers telling me that happiness is in security, striving for common good and in self-discovery. Each of these reinforces the others:

  • Self-discovery: Understanding what we are all about - weaknesses, strengths, fears, personal capacities - enriches our personal lives, but also helps our communities develop in response to our needs and strengths and not despite them. Self-discovery is a lifelong journey, a constant element easily pushed aside in today's busy lifestyle.
  • Common good: knowing that others are looking out for you and that you are looking out for others without receiving any personal benefit.
  • Security: Security is many things to us - physical, emotional, financial. Ultimately it is a state of worriless-ness, in which an individual feels safe from most communal and societal vulnerabilities. The common thread weaving through these elements is perhaps the spirituality component. Maybe that is what we are missing. We are trapped in GNP mode. We need to think about the world from the GNH perspective. As John Ralston Saul, the Canadian political philosopher, said at the Third International Conference on Gross National Happiness in 2007, it is "very important to keep reminding people that in the phrase life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, happiness refers to the public good." In this new year, let us draw from our strengths and capacities, including our collective spiritualism, to chart happiness as a public-good policy. Let the common good drive our actions, whether as individuals or as nations building relations with other nations. The writer is a public-sector policy and international-relations adviser in Ottawa, Canada.

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