New call for policy to be about happiness

Mood map: Every year, the UN ranks the world’s countries in its World Happiness Index.

Good mental health and having a partner make people happier than doubling their income, a new study has found. Could this lead to a new politics, in which well-being comes before money?

‘Let nature be your guide,’ commands a sign by the road to the airport. ‘Life is a journey! Complete it!’, reads another. This is Bhutan, the home of happiness.

In the 1970s the Dragon King of the remote Himalayan country had an idea. Rejecting economic growth as the only path to progress, he embraced Gross National Happiness (GNH): a philosophy that puts the people’s well-being above all. This is expressed in a range of policies, from green and social equality initiatives to meditation classes at school.

The concept spread abroad. So-called ‘happiness economists’ began to argue that material wealth is not the be all and end all of a successful state. A group of them have published a new study, which shows that such factors as mental health and love lives are more important to well-being than income. In conclusion, the authors call for ‘a new role from the state’.

Until recently the state’s role was fairly simple: defend the realm, maintain law and order, and create prosperity. New issues have shaken this definition. In particular, climate change and a backlash against globalisation have highlighted the problems with relentless economic growth.

Meanwhile the debate around happiness has shifted. Once the preserve of philosophers, it has entered the social sciences. Since the 1950s, researchers have conducted ever more sophisticated surveys of the public’s emotions. Happiness can now be measured.

Bhutan has set a trend. In 2010, David Cameron launched a programme to gauge ‘national well-being’ in the UK. Similar initiatives exist in France, Italy and Australia. Organisations such as the United Nations try to compare well-being across countries.

Unsurprisingly, these groups do not agree on a definition of ‘happiness’. They look at objective social factors as well as subjective responses to survey questions about life satisfaction. Yet they continue to argue over what to do with their data. Can ‘happiness economics’ ever work?

Don’t worry, be happy

No, say some. Happiness is too vague to be used as a basis for policy. At best, GNH-style programmes are a distraction. At worst, the state can bend the definition of the term to justify illiberal policies – as in Bhutan. Politicians should stick to what they know: the economy, defence, other areas of policy. If they do their job well, people will be happy anyway.

True, happiness is hard to define, reply others. But the more studies we conduct, the more data we collect, the more concrete it becomes. Around the world, the people are expressing their anger at the current systems. Clearly, our governments need to rethink their priorities. These programmes point the way.

You Decide

  1. What do you need for a happy life?
  2. Is it possible to be permanently happy?


  1. Without looking at a dictionary, write your own definition of happiness.
  2. March 20th is International Day of Happiness. As a class, come up with a full day of activities to celebrate it next year.

Some People Say...

“Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.”

Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella

What do you think?

Q & A

Everybody’s different. Why should others tell me what happiness means?
This is precisely the point that critics of GNH make: the concept of ‘happiness’ is too broad to be useful. Its defenders point to statistical evidence that people tend to value the same things: health, love, security and so on. In a way, your question applies to all of politics: how do we make one policy work for millions of citizens?
Is GNH working in Bhutan?
Not perfectly. It’s unclear just what impact the GNH policies have had, but Bhutan remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and crime and drug abuse are rising. In the 2013 election, the people voted for a government that doesn’t exactly love GNH. The current prime minister has called it ‘a distraction’, and is focusing on more conventional economic problems.

Word Watch

Dragon King
In the local language, Bhutan means ‘land of the dragons’. The Dragon King is the head of state.
Gross National Happiness
The term is inspired by ‘gross national product’, a measure of a country’s economic activity. GNH involves an index of happiness, based on population surveys and official analysis of social issues. In theory, the government’s findings guide its policies.
New study
Academics at the London School of Economics looked at responses from 200,000 people (across several countries) to questions about what made them feel good. On a scale of one to ten, a ‘doubling of income’ led to a 0.2 increase in happiness. ‘Getting a partner’ caused a rise of 0.6.
Social sciences
‘The study of human society and social relationships’ – Oxford English Dictionary.
As in Bhutan
One aspect of GNH was the protection of Bhutanese culture. Critics often accuse this policy of providing cover for the government’s persecution of Bhutan’s Nepali minority.
Britain’s vote for Brexit and America’s election of Trump are often described in terms of ‘anger’.

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