The VICE Channels

    The UN Wants to Quantify Global Happiness

    Written by

    Mat McDermott


    Image: UN

    Today is the UN's first International Day of Happiness. It's an attempt to recognize that measuring progress in monetary terms alone isn't up to the 21st century task of adequately balancing the needs of our societies and the environment—and that sustainable development is a lot more complicated than producing more material goods. In short, there's more to happiness than GDP.

    The UN's been pushing the notion for at least a year, and has been highlighting efforts to come up with alternatives to gross domestic product, such as Bhutan's Gross National Happiness. A broader movement with similar goals has been building for many years now, attempting to bring attention to the major shortcomings of GDP as the end-all development indicator. The UN itself calculated the Human Development Index, the New Economics Foundation created the Happy Planet Index, and Redefining Progress developed the Genuine Progress Indicator, just to name a few. 

    Today, the UN sums up its intent thusly:

    "A profound shift in attitudes is underway all over the world. People are now recognizing that 'progress' should be about increasing human happiness and wellbeing, not just growing the economy at all costs. All 193 United Nations states have adopted a resolution calling for happiness to be given greater priority and March 20 has been declared the International Day of Happiness -- a day to inspire action for a happier world."

    Which is kind of just a feel-good, dumbing down of the actual metrics and rationale fueling this movement. 

    The big question, in terms of challenging GDP, is how well are current efforts to make happiness a quantifiable thing working? 


    Photo: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep


    Promoting happiness has been a stated purpose of the government of Bhutan, a tiny, landlocked, Himalayan nation, since 1729. At the time the legal code stated, "If the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist." Gross National Happiness is much newer as a concept; it dates to the early 1970s. As a measurement, GHP is newer still, with the first study of it in the nation being undertaken in 2006, with the first GNH index released in 2010. 

    The main thing that stands out in Bhutan's measurement of happiness is that while it measures many of the same things that Western studies of happiness take into account, it also measures some important additional factors, like the artisanal skills of the people, how people are using their time, and the ecological diversity and resiliency of the country. Without unpacking the entire 2010 survey, suffice it to say that 41% of the Bhutanese population were identified as being fully happy, with the remainder of the people (as in, the majority) having sufficient, if not full, happiness in 57% of the categories considered by GHP. 

    All told, Bhutan's not doing badly in the happiness department, but isn't doing astoundingly either—which I think can be attributed more to the specific circumstances of the nation far more than the worthiness of concentrating on prioritizing happiness over GDP growth. 

    Attempting to correlate Bhutan's internal results with the only other major attempt to calculate national happiness is unfortunately difficult. The New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index doesn't include data from Bhutan in its ranking of happiest countries. In fact, Bhutan is among just a handful of nations not ranked. 


    Red nations are the worst-performing in the Happy Planet Index; green are the best. Image: New Economics Foundation


    The HPI is less granular in its presentation than GHP, measuring three components: Life expectancy, experienced well-being, and ecological footprint. It's that last component which really trips up the United States, but I'll get to that.

    Measured by HPI, Costa Rica is the happiest nation on the planet, with a scored of 64.0; Vietnam is second with 60.4; Colombia is third with 59.8; Belize is fourth at 59.3; and El Salvador is fifth at 59.3. Of the wealthy nations of the world and the emerging economies, Brazil is in 21st place, New Zealand is 28th, followed by Norway in 29th place, India is 31st, and Switzerland is 34th. The UK is all the way back at spot 51. Japan is 55th and Germany 56th. China is 70th. 

    The United States ranks way back at 115th, flanked by Belarus and Djibouti—the exceedingly poor performance here is not due to experienced well-being or life expectancy, where the US does pretty well, but in the fact that the nation has pretty much the highest ecological footprint in the world (7.0). The only other wealthy nations performing worse: Denmark, Luxembourg, and the UAE—all due, again, to huge ecological footprints. Nearly all the other nations in the bottom portion of the chart are desperately poor African nations. 

    Which really gets to the heart of why attempts to give importance to happiness and ecological factors is crucial today. Continuing to operate under the philosophical and practical delusion that infinite growth on a finite planet (which myopic attention on GDP and growth fetishism only supports) is a recipe for disaster viz a viz climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, critical resource depletion, and so on. Promoting limitless growth at the expense of the environment is no longer a viable policy.

    Yet, nearly everywhere, growth, growth, growth is all that's still heard, repeatedly intoned by economists like a hypnotist's incantation. Despite the fact that, as shown in the chart below, the relationship between GDP growth and "genuine progress" in the US over the past half decade is dubious. Even though GDP has continued to climb through the 1980s, citizens aren't actually benefitting from it. We've entered, to use Herman Daly's term, the realm of uneconomic growth. 

    Image: Redefining Progress


    The UN clearly sees the problem outlined above, and is beginning a concerted effort to shift the current paradigm. We have the tools today, several of them, to better attempt a real measure of nation's development, stability, and happiness. Clearly, there are some nations that are adequately balancing economic activity, ecological footprint, and human happiness. 

    Unfortunately, the lip-service paid by all the member states to the notion of promoting happiness and well-being, not just growth at all costs, is largely just talk—especially amongst the major 20th century powers. The official adoption of alternative or supplementary measurements of progress to GDP remains all but absent.