Can Government Make You Happy?

(World Government Summit, Dubai) — The question of whether a government should be responsible for the happiness of its people is at least as old as 1776, when the Declaration of Independence made “happiness” a national aspiration alongside “life” and “liberty.”      

In the centuries since, however, that question has largely been abandoned — or at the very least relegated to realm of personal well being. But in recent years a number of governments around the world have coalesced around the idea that citizens’ happiness is an indicator against which governments should design policy.

“After Thomas Jefferson said ‘pursuit of happiness’ we forgot that word until the kingdom of Bhutan rang that bell,”  said Freddy Elhers, Ecuador’s minister of Buen Vivir, which loosely translates as “living well.”    

Elhers was referring to policy decisions taken by the Kingdom of Bhutan in 2010 to systematically quantify Bhutanese’s levels of happiness by devising a metric called “Gross National Happiness.” Using survey tools that measure 22 indicators, including a person’s perception of their financial well being, their access to healthcare, their exposure to pollution, and even the amount of sleep they get, the government of Bhutan uses Gross National Happiness as an organizing tool around which to inform policy decisions.

“Rather than relegating it to a personal pursuit, the happiness of our people is prioritized as a public good,” said Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in a keynote address at the World Government Summit. Using the survey, Tobgay says the government increased maternity leave from two months to six months and nixed a proposed mineral extraction policy.

The idea is starting to catch on. Countries as diverse as  Ecuador, Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates have created ministries for happiness (or the equivalent) to try and mainstream the concept. For example, Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi, the UAE Minister for Happiness, says that some 60 government employees were trained in mindfulness at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and then deployed to government service offices.

The concept has also made its way to development policy.  United Nations Development Program chief Helen Clark railed against what she called the “tyranny of GDP,” arguing that the quality of growth matters, too. “Paying more attention to happiness should be part of our efforts to achieve both human and sustainable development,” she said.  

This idea is still on the fringes of public policy conversations in the United States and Europe. But given the role that discontentment has been playing in national politics and fueling populist sentiment around the world, perhaps it is time to revisit that old Jeffersonian idea.

UN Dispatch is covering the World Government Summit in Dubai. This is an international conference that examines how governments can better design policies to serve the interests of their people and of sustainable development. It includes a significant participation by the UN, including a keynote address by the Secretary General and several top UN officials.