Stewart M. Patrick

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Don’t Worry Be Happy: The UN Happiness Summit

by Stewart M. Patrick
April 1, 2012

Women, their teeth red from chewing betel nuts, laugh at a vegetable market in Bhutanese capital Thimpu, October 23, 2006 (Gopal Chitrakar/Courtesy Reuters). Women, their teeth red from chewing betel nuts, laugh at a vegetable market in Bhutanese capital Thimpu, October 23, 2006 (Gopal Chitrakar/Courtesy Reuters).

At first glance, this Monday’s high-level event in the UN General Assembly would appear to confirm the worst suspicions of UN skeptics. Given all the crises engulfing the globe, what geniuses in New York decided to have the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan host a daylong special session on “Happiness.” What the heck is going on in Turtle Bay?

More than meets the eye, in fact. One of the hottest fields in development economics has been, believe it or not, happiness research. And it turns out that the government in Thimpu may have something wise to say on the subject.

In recent years, a small but influential group of economists has concluded that traditional measurements of national progress, typically couched in terms of per capita Gross National Product (GNP), don’t actually tell us much about the wellbeing of citizens. This is partly a critique of modernization theory, which suggests that human welfare advances in lockstep with material enrichment. In fact, as pioneering researchers like Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland have shown, there’s little correlation between national income and contentment. Some of the highest levels of happiness have been recorded in low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

This comes as no news to the Bhutanese. Although one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income the World Bank estimates at $670, Bhutan is also, according to Business Week, the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world. Some forty years ago, the grandfather of the current constitutional monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, began popularizing the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to replace GNP as a gauge of national progress. Improbably, the concept has taken off.

Over the past decade, the 800,000-person kingdom has become a Mecca—or rather Shangri-la—for Western policymakers and development experts seeking enlightenment on the secrets of national happiness in an age of globalization. Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureates both, are converts. So too is Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and tireless campaigner for the Millennium Development Goals. On August 10-12 of last year, Sachs traveled to Thimpu to co-host with Prime Minister Jigme Thinley the Bhutan Conference on Happiness and Economic Development.

Two weeks later, Bhutan hit the big-time, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 65/309 (PDF) titled, “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development.” Endorsing the monarchy’s basic point, the resolution conceded: “the gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being in a country.” More pointedly, it implied that public policies in many countries have encouraged “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption,” at the expense of “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of peoples.”

Monday’s high-Level meeting on “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” raises the GNH concept to new heights. Prince Charles will address the event with a pre-recorded message, and both Sachs and Stiglitz will speak, alongside national and international dignitaries, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The conversation will likely recapitulate themes from last year’s conference, which called on governments to integrate a “happiness agenda” into public policy. Some proposed steps seem sensible, such as reducing extreme suffering and deprivation, focusing on education, empowering local communities, protecting ecological systems, and investing in mental health. But other proposals could prove more controversial, for instance building “awareness and avoidance of pure status goods,” to say nothing of “controlling the media in a way that doesn’t limit freedom but restrains the creation of artificial cravings.” Such aspirations could lend themselves to caricature, as blatant assaults on the free market by misguided social engineers seeking to escape modernity.

The champions of GNH have tried to inoculate themselves from this critique. “The happiness agenda should not be considered anti-technological or anti-material,” reads the conference summary from last August. “There is no going back to a simpler life, for a basic arithmetic reason. We are now seven billion people with a tremendous difficulty of provision, meeting the needs of people, being able to operate complex societies. Any attempt to turn back technology would lead to devastation.”

The Tea Party, in other words can breathe easy. The Buddhists of Bhutan have no designs on the capitalist system, or the rest of our freedoms. In fact, the Land of the Thunder Dragon may have more in common with the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than you might imagine. After all, they share the fundamental aspiration enunciated in America’s founding document: the pursuit of happiness. 

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Terry Mock

    The future of the planet depends on changing the way we think. Although business as usual is obviously not sustainable, new science and technology alone can not save us either. Triple-bottom-line principles of sustainability have now developed a strong consensus conceptually, but insufficient top-down metrics and poor story-telling have failed to provide humanity with an attractive new global mythology, so far.

    Let’s hope that this week at the UN, great minds will be focused on how to take the principles and get more people to buy-in and the participants will embrace The SLDI Code: The World’s First Sustainable Development Decision Model symbolized as a universal geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions – http://www.triplepundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/THE-FRACTAL-FRONTIER.pdf

    The information contained herein has been derived from extensive research of preexisting theories on sustainable development as well as the direct vetting and feedback from numerous sustainable development and other specific subject matter experts. The authors have adopted the spirit of “Pass It Forward” for the contents of this document. As individual thought leaders reflect on this information, adopt it, and share the work with others, it may adapt as specific circumstances dictate and our knowledge of the world evolves.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    How do we develop a sustainable civilization?
    http://www.triplepundit.com/author/sldi/

  • Posted by Rajbuda

    Who is happy in Bhutan? Christians don not get burial land. They even cannot congregate more than 5 people. Or if have to they should get permission from police Dept, they are not allowed to construct church. Christians have only church in entire Bhutan. Hindus were/are coerced to change their religion to state religion. There are only one Hindu temple in entire Bhutan. People and parliamentarian are questioning about their lost land. One sixth of its citizens are living in refugee camp holding their citizenship card issued by Bhutan government.
    All these are disguised behind by the mask of GNH by Bhutan Government. And all the intellectuals are believing foolery of Thinley.
    Bhutan government did a crime against humanity. Instead of being going behind Bhutan’s policy, intellectuals should at least try to heed upon how and why these people are created refugees. Whatever thinley says, “horde economic refugees” first they are Bhutanese citizens become prey of their petty self interest to play with absolute power.

    This problem can be solved by accepting people willing to repatriate by respecting UDHR article 13 b. And compensating to those who do not want to return. Otherwise there is already signs of bloody war. My point is there is always limitation. If anybody cross limitation there is bursting with ferocity , which i do not want to….. love, peace and fraternity among each is elements of vibrant, true and inclusive democracy.

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