What happiness can teach us about how we measure human development

By Matt Dallisson, 14/04/2019

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Bhutan for the first time, a trip I’ve been looking forward to for many years. The country’s quest to buck the global trend of measuring human development success by Gross Development Product (GDP) and going instead with Gross National Happiness (GNH) has long intrigued me.

Yale University offered its most popular course ever last year with nearly 1,200 undergraduate students signing up to study how to lead a happier life. Successful businesses increasingly tend to the wellbeing of their workforce to maximize their competitive advantage.

From the UK to Costa Rica, from Sweden to Slovenia, governments are focusing more and more on analyzing the wellbeing of their citizens. New Zealand’s 2019 “wellbeing budget” will broaden its focus beyond pure economic and fiscal policy, using a broader set of indicators to measure success.

In 2008, the country enshrined the concept of Gross National Happiness in its constitution, a concept deeply-rooted in Bhutan’s society and the principles of Buddhism and focused on compassion, contentment and calmness.

Bhutan first defined happiness: creating nine domains – psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards – and 33 indicators.

Twice, in 2010 and 2015, the Centre for Bhutan Studies – a think tank in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu – carried out a national census-like Gross National Happiness Survey to measure with empirical precision the quality and depth of each person’s happiness over time.

For example, in 2010, 59% of Bhutanese reported having positive emotions such as calmness, compassion, forgiveness, contentment and generosity a few times a week; by 2015 this had fallen to 51%.

This is a unique dataset, which can drive forward-looking policy and decision-making. The impact of their policies and decision-making is significant: Bhutan’s poverty rate dropped from 12% in 2012 to 8.2% in 2017.

As a deliberate derivative of the GNH approach, the Royal Government offers its citizens free basic education and healthcare, while villagers get much of their electricity for free. More than 50% of its land is designated for national parks, and more than 80% is covered by natural forests. Bhutan is carbon-neutral and has a net zero-carbon footprint.

Espousing a different route to GDP does not mean the economy does not matter. It does. Even as one the fastest growing economies in the world, there is mounting pressure in Bhutan to create more jobs. In 2023, Bhutan is set to graduate from the world’s least developed countries group, signalling a potential change in the relationship between Bhutan and the rest of the world.

GNH – interpreted practically – can help. It can encourage business to measure success by the bottom line and the environmental and social benefits they offer, with new initiatives such as GNH business certification. And it can help track how people really feel about the changes in their society.

The HDR imagined a world where income was not the only measure of wellbeing. Instead, human development would measure people’s choices and opportunities: whether they lived long lives, whether they were healthy, educated, and had sufficient income.

Today, the data show that while human development is improving on average across the world, the steepest declines are seen in countries suffering protracted conflict. The Syrian Arab Republic, entering is ninth year of conflict in 2019, fell 27 places; followed by Libya, which fell 26 places; and Yemen, considered the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today, which fell 20 places.

So, too, does GNH, though the interpretation of happiness is more complex than the indicators behind the Human Development Index. If people are less happy or satisfied, is it a result of worse conditions, or growing expectations, for example, and how should this influence decision-making?

This year, the Human Development Report will paint a detailed picture of inequality, with new data that will go further beyond income and averages. The International Day of Happiness is a good reminder that our world is changing. If we want to understand how we progress, why we sometimes fail, and, ultimately improve the quality of all our lives, then the pursuit of happiness may offer an answer.

This content was originally published here.