Are Bhutan and Vanuatu world leaders? Thoughts for the International Day of Happiness

Happiness is a word with an intense golden glow and surely one of the main goals of each one of us every day of our lives; but it seems an elusive thing, difficult to define or measure or pursue systematically or collectively. Yet it is gaining ground as a concept in social sciences and in politics.

In 2012, the United Nations unanimously adopted the International Day of Happiness on March, 20.  Resolution 66/281 urges members to integrate “happiness and well-being” into public policies and to balance economic growth with social justice and sustainability.

The pursuit of maximum production and capital has tentatively been replaced by more holistic aims. One factor is equality: if there is a considerable national income, how is it distributed? Another factor is health: if life expectancy is very high and rising, how many years are actually spent in good health? Some development indexes try to weigh literacy and education. Then there is the environment: we have finally noticed that unchecked development will destroy the space where it takes place.

Also since 2012, the UN publishes the World Happiness Report, with rankings for 156 countries and a focus on inequality in the latest update of 2016. Not only has socio-economic inequality increased: ‘happiness inequality’ is on the rise within countries, within regions, and across the globe. This ranking uses surveys on subjective well-being and studies on ethics and religions but claims to be a more precise indicator of social inequality.

The Human Development Index establishes a formula from income, education and life span. The usual suspects in Northern Europe and Central Europe and East Asia get very high ratings, together with the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Note that in the ‘inequality-adjusted’ HDI, the Nordic countries become the team at the top, while South Korea drops from position 17 to 32 and the US is in freefall from position 8 to 28!

The Happy Planet Index comes to a very different conclusion: The tiny Pacific nation of Vanuatu made it to the top of the world in the first round, with Costa Rica and other Caribbean countries of modest means runners-up and holding the flag since. The lowest rankings of well-being are clustered in Africa and extend, bizarrely, to Russia and the United States of America. This is due to the ‘ecological footprint’ of the nation’s lifestyle. ‘Happy Planet’ refers to happy, healthy people as well as a happy, healthy planet.



Map showing countries shaded by their position in the Happy Planet Index (2006). The highest-ranked countries are bright green; the lowest are brown. — Source: By Super cyclist at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The German Parliament set up the Commission ‘Growth, Prosperity, Quality of Life’, which in 2011 came up with ten development indicators across economic, social and environmental areas: among them national debt, personal freedom, and greenhouse gases. I think this is an approach to be watched and worked on!

A few years ago, the UK Government established the What Works Centre in order to look into and promote well-being. Some of the focus areas are adult learning and culture. Recent research papers examine the link between music and dementia and discuss how ‘life-satisfaction’ can be measured and compared.

This movement was apparently started by another tiny nation, Bhutan in Central Asia, quite cut off amidst the Himalayas in the 1970s. When a journalist asked the King about their Gross Domestic Product, he replied that the Bhutanese have different aims – and went on to have Gross National Happiness (GNH) enshrined in the law.

The Newsam Library at the UCL Institute of Education has just bought two new books on the matter (downstairs at 549.8). Schuelka, Maxwell and colleagues (2016) and Robles (2016) describe how Bhutan moved, within half a century, from a traditional monastic education to a secular system with international outlook, while preserving the cultural heritage and upholding Buddhist values. The concept of ‘happiness’ encompasses equality and kindness.

I gather that in Asia, collective happiness is not the sum of individual satisfaction, but an equilibrium, the maximum space for everyone to find development and contentment. The editors of the UN’s World Happiness Report 2016 draw a similar conclusion: the more equally distributed happiness is in a country, the happier its inhabitants are overall.

For the International Day of Happiness 2017, you could think about these matters as a teacher, perhaps with your pupils or students, or as a researcher. Have there been surveys of life-satisfaction and well-being in your country? Do recent policies on economic expansion explicitly take social equality and mobility, or the educational achievement, or the healthy life span into account?

For a philosophical background, you could turn to Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness, in several copies at UCL Main Library, or to Hermann Hesse’s musings on Happiness (Glück), available in German at Senate House Library.

François Lelord offers a mixture of entertaining narrative and popular philosophy in his Hector novels, available in French at the French Institute and in English at the public libraries around UCL, which belong to Camden Council. The hero flees – like the author did – the Western ‘wellness’ industry of gyms, pills, and psychoanalysis in order to look for true contentment with Eskimos and, incidentally or not, monks in the Himalayas.

Sunlit veranda of coffee-house with cups on round table and flower pots on rails.

The IOE Library also holds a critical documentary on Bhutan’s claims to the best recipe for satisfaction: Bhutan tourism, TV and happiness.

Our Curriculum Resources section offers introductions into philosophy for children at classmark 100. Teaching and learning materials on happiness are located at 152.4 and those on health and well-being in general from 300 onwards.

For very young children, there are picture books exploring the aims of life. Have a look at The jar of happiness and Augustus and his smile. Older children will be intrigued by the illustrated tales The seeds of peace and The keeper of wisdom.

My own version of happiness would be a place in the sun, quite literally: a seat in a coffee-house in a sunny country, with the leisure to immerse myself in… social history!

‘Nid’cigogne’ café in Marrakesh, Morocco. Photograph: Christina Egan © 2012.

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