Bhutan leader’s pain at bringing global happiness

Agence France-Presse
The feelgood factor has not yet reached the leader of Bhutan, the country that brought the world the National Happiness Index

UNITED NATIONS – The feelgood factor has not yet reached the leader of Bhutan, the country that brought the world the National Happiness Index.

But the Himalayan kingdom’s campaign to put gross national happiness alongside gross domestic product is starting to sway bigger economic players who have decided that once “fluffy” ideas such as well-being and sustainable development have to be written into everyday policies.

Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley launched Bhutan’s National Happiness Index in 2008, developing the ideas of late monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who first thought up GNH in the 1970s.

“I find myself very often in mental states of mind that cannot be said as being happy,” Thinley said ahead of a UN conference Monday on happiness and well-being where Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla will speak and which Britain’s Prince Charles will open with a video message.

Highlighting the challenges he faces in a country where about a quarter of the population of 725,000 lives below the poverty line, Thinley added: “Making others happy is a painful and often difficult task.”

Many thought Bhutan would have a tough time convincing the world to accept its happiness index — which takes in 72 elements, including wealth distribution and psychological health.

But Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and other world leaders have all become supporters of adding well-being to raw economic indicators such as gross domestic product.

“I see this as the reflection of a world finally coming to terms with the truth that it needs a shared, human vision in place of the mindless pursuit of limitless growth in a finite world,” Thinley told AFP.

Leaders and economists in Western nations say they are taking a more pragmatic approach to happiness.

“We are trying to knock on the head the idea that it is all very fluffy,” said Gus O’Donnell, a former head of Britain’s civil service who will be representing the prime minister at the UN conference.

And the early well-being indicators are starting to have an impact in Britain. The British government wants to inject well-being cost-benefit assessments into all new policies, said O’Donnell.

The government is placing “strong emphasis” on the impact of policies on mental health, which O’Donnell said costs Britain a huge amount to treat and hurts industry efficiency.

The government has also changed the way it communicates with the public “to appeal to people’s better senses” over unpaid taxes and fines. O’Donnell said that telling offenders to think of their community’s well-being had increased payment rates.

Australia’s Treasury Department has maintained a “well-being framework” for several years that says the government must assess the “level of opportunity and freedom” people will get from a law as well as the “risk” involved and who bears the risk.

New Zealand has a similar policy, while China, Italy, Japan and South Africa are all considering how to change their indicators and decision-making.

Unlikely as it sounds, happiness and well-being will be aired at a sustainable development summit of 110 presidents and prime ministers in Rio de Janeiro in June.

Economic cynics may say much of the pressure has come since the financial and economic crises of 2007-2009 that caused GDP figures to melt down. But the intellectual campaign has been building for more than a decade.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Economics Prize for his work on behavioral economics, including questioning the link between income levels and happiness.

Enrico Giovannini, president of Italy’s national statistics agency and another pioneer of the movement, said the 2009 crisis had “boosted” an already swelling international debate.

“Big corporations are starting to talk about corporate social responsibility, saying that money is not the only parameter we should use to assess how satisfied workers are — there is also a sense of community, future employability, education,” said Giovannini.

“Why should companies discuss this qualitative dimension and not our countries?” he asked.

“I think there is a growing demand for a greener, better and safer society. This crisis is demonstrating how vulnerable we are and demand for overcoming vulnerability is not just about money.” – Agence France-Presse