How to Measure Happiness

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The reasons people feel happy or unhappy can be as varied as the smiles or frowns on their faces, but one Asian nation is leading the way in using “happiness indicators” to guide decision-making.

The concept of “gross national happiness” (GNH) was first proposed by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972. His objective at that time was to transition his country into a modern economy, without sacrificing the Bhutanese people’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.

Perhaps even more than economic measures like Gross National Product (GNP), a GNH index could help guide policy decisions regarding the welfare of his subjects.

Creating the GNH was no easy task. It had to take into account both subjective and objective criteria across a broad spectrum of activities. Eventually, nine domains of happiness were identified:

    1. Time use,
    2. Living Standards,
    3. Good Governance,
    4. Psychological Wellbeing,
    5. Community Vitality,
    6. Culture,
    7. Health, and
    8. Education and Ecology.

Within these domains, 72 indicators exist. In the category of Culture, for example, happiness indicators relate to language proficiency, sports participation, artisan skills, teaching children values, community festivals and ethics, among others.

Using numeric codes and a system of weighting responses, the GNH has evolved as a tool for planning. In fact, in 2008, it was incorporated into the country’s new Constitution.

Today, all of Bhutan’s government programs—from agriculture to transportation to foreign trade—are judged “not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce.”

This is a radical departure in governance, but as the country’s Secretary of Information has noted of the recent global economic crisis, “You see what a complete dedication to economic development ends up in…. GNP is a broken promise.”

Whether other nations could copy Bhutan’s strategy and develop happiness indicators of their own remains to be seen. However, major international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are taking the approach seriously.

As of April 2011, Bhutan had already attained or was on track to achieve the majority of its Millennium Development Goals, which include poverty reduction, infrastructure improvements and job creation as well as higher levels of school enrollment.

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