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The UN Embraces the Economics of Happiness

Leaders from around the world want well-being—not gross national product—to guide our economic decisions.

denmark family by Eddie Codel

Denmark and other Scandinavian countries—which boast, among other things, strong social safety nets, shorter-than-average work weeks, and high rates of non-motorized transit—frequently top lists of the world's happiest countries.

Photo by Eddie Codel

Imagine you open the paper tomorrow, and the headlines are not about the “sluggish economy,” but our nation’s quality of life. You turn to the business section, and find not just information about a certain company’s profitability, but also about its impact on community health and employee well-being.

Imagine, in short, a world where the metric that guides our decisions is not money, but happiness.

That is the future that 650 political, academic, and civic leaders from around the world came together to promote on April 2, 2012. Encouraged by the government of Bhutan, the United Nations held a High Level Meeting for Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. The meeting marks the launch of a global movement to shift our focus away from measuring and promoting economic growth as a goal in its own right, and toward the goal of measuring—and increasing—human happiness and quality of life.

Not just for dreamers

Some may say these 650 world leaders are dreamers, but they are the sort that can make dreams come true. The meeting began with an address by Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan, where the government tracks the nation’s “Gross National Happiness”:

The time has come for global action to build a new world economic system that is no longer based on the illusion that limitless growth is possible on our precious and finite planet or that endless material gain promotes well-being. Instead, it will be a system that promotes harmony and respect for nature and for each other; that respects our ancient wisdom traditions and protects our most vulnerable people as our own family, and that gives us time to live and enjoy our lives and to appreciate rather than destroy our world. It will be an economic system, in short, that is fully sustainable and that is rooted in true, abiding well-being and happiness.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited Aristotle and Buddha in calling for the replacement of our current economic system with one based on happiness, well-being, and compassion. “Social, economic, and environmental well-being are indivisible” he said. 

angel painting by Angelo BronzinoA History of Happiness
We've forgotten a lot of what we used to know about happiness.

 President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica followed with a keynote speech that provided an explanation of why her country is one of the worlds most eco-friendly and happy nations, despite its relative poverty. Decades ago, Costa Rica eliminated its army, prioritizing spending on a strong education program, support for social security, and the protection of national parks that spur tourism.

From Finland to France, Israel to India, speakers of parliament, ministers of the environment, and other high-level officials followed with brief speeches about the need for a new economic paradigm to replace the current economy. The afternoon featured Vandana Shiva, Martin Seligman, John Helliwell, Lord Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs and other luminaries.

Helliwell, Layard and Sachs introduced the World Happiness Report, a study they prepared for the conference. The report found that money and economic growth have a relatively weak correlation to happiness; happiness is much more strongly associated with things like community engagement, having lots of friends, doing work you love, and feeling a sense of trust in others. Altruism, too, is essential; a world that makes equity, care, and compassion more possible will be a happier world. As the authors write:

The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. …if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.

Over the next two days, more than 200 people stayed to participate in working groups to discuss turning global happiness metrics into a reality. They presented their recommendations on the third day. These included plans for an inclusive movement, forging communication material for all audiences, collaborative development of the metrics for happiness, the formation of a UN happiness commission, and the inclusion of happiness and well-being as a UN Millennium Development Goal.

The meeting ended with a presentation by Susan Andrews, who is developing a metric for measuring well-being in Brazil. Brazilian youth, she explained, had been trained to conduct happiness surveys and taught to practice altruism and compassion. Neighbors had at first rejected the youth, but later embraced their efforts to measure the happiness of their community. The project culminated in the creation of community-based activities that are changing neighborhoods for the better.

Progress in the United States

Noticeably absent from the meeting were high-level officials from the United States. But that does not mean that nothing is happening here.

The Department of Housing and Human Services has convened a panel of experts in psychology and economics to figure out ways to reliably measure subjective well-being—a move toward government tracking and analysys of happiness statistics.

But some cities are beating HHS to the punch, using a survey developed by The Happiness Initiative, a U.S.-based nonprofit, which offers a subjective metric for happiness that can be used at a personal or community level.

In Nevada City, California, the city council is using the happiness index to gather data about people’s needs and preferences for a land development decision. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the city government is working with a local chamber of commerce, state university, boys and girls club, library, and other organizations to gather data and convene town meetings where residents can discuss ways to promote quality of life.

The time has come for global action to build a new world economic system that is no longer based on the illusion that limitless growth is possible on our precious and finite planet.

In Seattle, Wash., more than 2,500 people have taken the survey, providing data for a city report card—including many members of the city’s Oromo, Somali, Filipino, and Vietnamese communities, thanks to local immigrant organizations working to measure the well-being of their people. The results, they hope, will help the city think more strategically about promoting social justice; the community organizations are also using them to identify and ameliorate problems within immigrant populations. Vietnamese youth, for example, scored low on sense of community and trust in government, so the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) helped them host a “Spring Off,” bringing people together to make spring rolls—but also to reduce isolation and create a feeling of empowerment.

“The project was wonderful in the context of working with our youth council,” says James Hong , Director of Youth and Community Engagement for VFA. It gave them the opportunity to get them involved at every level, which is rare. They were able to conduct the survey, reflect upon the results, decide on a project and then coordinate it all themselves. We want to continue using this model for youth council. There was so much learning and it was all very valuable.”

Nationally, more than 40,000 people have taken the happiness survey and received their own personal assessments of well-being. One woman, a New Yorker, said, “I thought my life was going pretty well. After all, I make a lot of money. But after taking the survey, I saw my low scores in community and culture, and this led me to think about what really matters to me.”

The global happiness movement may seem like a dream today, but it is a dream that is becoming reality.


Laura Musikanski wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Laura is co-founder and director of the Happiness Initiative and the former director of Sustainable Seattle. She is a lawyer with an MBA and certificates in Environmental Management and Environmental Law and Regulations from the University of Washington.

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