United Nations calls for happiness-based economy

At a landmark UN meeting on happiness, delegates proposed making wellbeing the central goal of economic development

A high-level United Nations meeting on happiness has taken place, marking a significant step towards governments placing wellbeing at the heart of economic progress.

The first of its kind, the meeting took place at UN headquarters in New York on 2 April 2012 and brought together more than 600 participants from government, academia, business, civil society and spiritual and religious groups.

Following the conference, wellbeing is now intended to be at the centre of new sustainable development goals, which are expected to replace the millennium development goals when they expire in 2015.

“This will add a positive aspiration to improve human wellbeing alongside existing essential goals such as eradication of extreme poverty and universal education,” said Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness, who attended the meeting.

The event was organised after a UN resolution on happiness – which was co-sponsored by 68 countries – was adopted by consensus in July 2011. The ‘happiness resolution’ stated that gross domestic product (GDP) alone is not an adequate measure of human prosperity and that “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach is needed to promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance wellbeing.”

Policy recommendations from the meeting are now being drawn up, ranging from prioritising investment in renewable energy, public transport and green spaces; to introducing work sharing schemes that increase leisure time and prevent unemployment; discouraging materialism by banning advertising to children; and creating accounting systems that factor in the value of ‘services’ provided by nature.

The idea of placing wellbeing at the centre of economies will also be carried forward to the Rio+20 sustainable development summit on 20-22 June this year.

“This is not about being anti-growth, it’s about redefining what we mean by progress”

“This is not about being anti-growth,” said Williamson, “it’s about redefining what we mean by progress. We should be aiming for growth in human happiness. A healthy economy is part of this, but other things are essential too – like vibrant communities and greater equality.”

The April meeting was convened by the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, which in the 1970s introduced the concept of gross national happiness (GNH). It began measuring GNH in 2008, looking at factors such as living standards, health, education, culture, good governance, and psychological wellbeing.

In this context, Bhutan describes happiness not as relating to an everyday passing mood, but as “the deep, abiding happiness” that comes from living in harmony with the natural world and with others – that is, from “feeling totally connected with our world.”

Although Bhutan, a small developing country, is currently struggling to fulfil the basic needs of its own people, it hopes to achieve consensus on a new global economic model to be implemented by 2015. There is growing interest in the GNH concept; in the UK, the Office of National Statistics began including questions on happiness in social surveys in 2011, and France and Luxembourg have also taken steps towards measuring happiness.

World Happiness Report

A report commissioned for the UN conference shows how a new ‘science of happiness’ is able to measure people’s wellbeing. According to The World Happiness Report, the happiest countries are all in northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands scored an average of 7.6 out of 10 for life satisfaction. The least happy countries are in sub-Saharan Africa: Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone scored an average of 3.4. The UK was placed 18th.

The report, which was published by the Earth Institute and co-edited by leading economist Jeffrey Sachs, states that although the least happy are poorer countries, more important than income are social factors such as supportive relationships, personal freedoms and the absence of corruption.

The report also found that happiness has increased in some countries as living standards have risen, but not in others such as the United States; and mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country.

A new economy

At the UN meeting the prime minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinley called for a “great transition” to an economy that creates the conditions in which all citizens are able to pursue “the ultimate goal of happiness.”

The president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, a keynote speaker, said that wellbeing includes economic, social, cultural, environmental and spiritual factors, and that it demands a balance between individual and collective interests. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon cited Costa Rica as an example of holistic development and “a beacon of peace and democracy.”

Awarded first place in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index in 2009 and regarded as the ‘greenest’ country in the world, Costa Rica made primary education free and mandatory in 1870 – before the UK or US – and abolished its army in 1948. In 1970 a network of national parks was set up, protecting nearly 30% of its territory and it now aspires to become one of the first carbon neutral countries.

The conference closed with prayers from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Islamic leaders. The Bhutanese prime minister hoped it marked “the crafting of a new and bright chapter in human history.”