Putting the Science of Happiness Into Practice

Countries around the world are beginning to apply the science of well-being to the decisions they make. News from the 5th International Conference on Gross National Happiness.
Thimphu, photo by Christopher J. Flynn

Thimphu, Bhutan's capital city.

Photo by Christopher J Fynn

The study of happiness is experiencing a boom. Its practitioners include economists who believe that gross domestic product (GDP) is too limited a tool to measure the success of societies, psychologists and sociologists who feel that their disciplines have focused too much on neuroses and social problems and not enough on determining what kind of activities and policies actually contribute to happier societies, and political leaders who want to know how to make use of their findings.

During the 5th International Gross National Happiness Conference, held last week in Brazil, happiness proponents from around the world were able to come together and compare notes about the practical application of “happiness science.”

The Science of Happiness

Not surprisingly, that science has found that beyond a certain minimum level of income, greater happiness comes from strong and plentiful human connections, a sense of control over one’s life and employment, meaningful work, good health, basic economic security, trust in others and in government, and other factors less directly connected with monetary remuneration.

I was invited to the conference to speak about the connection between work (or overwork), health, and happiness. I made the case that shorter working hours are crucial to happiness, health, and long-term sustainability. The United States, with among the longest working hours in the industrial world, scores far below northern European nations in calculations of leisure time, longevity, and overall health, while having an ecological footprint nearly twice as large—facts which are clearly related.

Studies of life satisfaction can now compare regular polling data from many countries, making it easier to understand how economic and policy decisions impact national happiness. In recent years, such polls have consistently found that the highest levels of satisfaction are found in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden—countries with a strong sense of social solidarity and attention to work-life balance, small income gaps, high taxation rates, and strong social safety nets.

These studies also find that many relatively income-poor nations, such as Costa Rica and Colombia, also have high rates of life satisfaction, leading one group of British researchers to establish a “Happy Planet Index,” which compares life satisfaction scores, life expectancies, and ecological footprints to produce a net rating for happiness. Many so-called developing countries actually rank at the top of their index.

Gross National Happiness

One country that takes happiness very seriously is Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom that hosted the first Gross National Happiness Conference. In 1972, Bhutan’s king proclaimed in 1972 that “Gross National Happiness is more important then Gross National Product.”

Bhutan: Thunder Dragon calloutLand of the Thunder Dragon
JenFu Cheng's photo essay of Bhutan

Since then, Bhutan has enshrined the concept in its constitution and looked for ways to apply it and measure it. Karma Ura, the Bhutanese director of the Center for Bhutan Studies and a speaker at the conference, explained that, over time, the Bhutanese have identified nine aspects that factor into analyses of happiness. They include:  psychological well-being; good health; time use (work-life balance); community vitality; education; cultural preservation; environmental protection; good governance; and financial security.

They have developed questionnaires, used in regular polls of the Bhutanese people, by which they assess life satisfaction in each of these areas. Included are such questions as: How safe do you feel from human harm? Rarely? Usually? Always?

Bhutan then uses the results of its questionnaires to guide public policy. Each governmental decision is based on assurance that it will not lower—and should in fact raise—overall life satisfaction. One such analysis led Bhutan’s government to decide not to join the World Trade Organization.

Bhutan’s research, frameworks, and results can be found at its excellent website. While the country is among the world’s poorest materially, the Bhutanese have quite a high level of Gross National Happiness, especially in the countryside, and especially when compared to the resources they consume.

Redefining Progress

Bhutan is far from the only country where happiness has become a serious topic of conversation. This fall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, only two years ago the champion of economic growth and American-style economics, made headlines by singing a very different tune: he organized a commission led by Nobel Prize economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to re-examine how France measures progress. The commission called for a focus on indicators such as health, family cohesion, and leisure time instead of the current emphasis on GDP. Sarkozy embraced their recommendations and suggested they be adopted by the European community.

In August, a European Union commission released a report called “GDP and Beyond: Measuring Progress in a Changing World.” It recommends more accurate reporting on economic inequality as well as the development of social and environmental indicators—including a comprehensive measurement of environmental stewardship that would consider water and air pollution, climate change and energy use, biodiversity, waste, and resource use.

John Hall, leader of the Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies—a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), ratified by 30 countries—reported that the OECD is developing a whole new set of indicators on which to judge the progress of member countries. Its new “Global Project” aims at collecting so-called “best practices”—social and economic policies that are clearly shown to increase life satisfaction.

In October, the 3rd OECD World Forum in Busan, South Korea brought together 2,000 researchers and activists from more than 100 countries to consider policies that focus on happiness instead of economic growth.

“It really is a movement now,” Hall declared.

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