17 April 2012

Happiness is… sustainable development?

The following post is by Jen, writer of the new blog on sustainable development called Integrating Development.

Those who hear of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) generally find it quaint. At best, the concept of happiness as a national goal seems whimsical, especially in an achingly beautiful, fairytale-like kingdom in the middle of nowhere (case in point: the header photo). But supporters of GNH are serious. Conceived as a backlash to the world’s obsession with GDP as a measure of a country’s worth, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck determined back in 1972 that happiness should be more important than income. After all, the King proclaimed, while the Bhutanese are poor, they are also very, very happy.

It is easy to think that this is merely a brilliant public relations move by a small country putting itself on the map (indeed, it’s one of the few things most people know about Bhutan). There is a reason that it took the better part of forty years for GNH to gain traction in other countries. There is also a reason that now, in 2012, the world is finally starting to pay attention to “happiness” as a metric. It is dawning on us that the current, rampant economic growth is not delivering the goods that it promises, and that we need other solutions.

But how does one measure happiness? Not easily: Bhutan did not release its first happiness index until 2010. In it, Bhutan came up with 33 variables, focusing on environment, cultural preservation, governance and living standards. Seem familiar? Yes, “happiness” starts to sound a lot like “sustainable development” by another name.

I think I can see happiness down there...
Indeed, with the help of pop-development economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, who have both become enamored with the idea of GNH, happiness and sustainable development now go hand in hand on the world stage. Last year, the United Nations passed resolution 65/309 called Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development, in which it recognized “the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of all peoples.”

Bhutan followed up earlier this month during the first-ever high-level meeting at the United Nations on happiness. In the concurrent report, Jeffrey Sachs advocates for the follow-on goals to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), due in 2015. The next set of goals, to be called the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), would have four pillars, based loosely on Bhutan’s GNH pillars:
  1. End extreme poverty by 2030 (a continuation of the MDGs, which will miss their initial deadline for this)
  2. Environmental sustainability
  3. Social inclusion
  4. Good governance
The SDGs would also have a specific commitment to happiness.

This begs the question: is happiness an appropriate euphemism for sustainable development for the world? There are several happiness indicators that don’t have obvious connections to the SDGs. These include the strength social relationships, spiritual wellbeing, cultural diversity, amount of sleep, and even frequency of sex. It is a philosophy unto itself, an age-old human question that has no easy answer. Does it all belong under the umbrella of sustainable development? Or is it trying to fit too much into an already complicated process?

Perhaps. But one way to look at happiness is to think of it as a powerful explanatory tool, helping to integrate the various aspects of sustainable development. Happiness is easier to relate to than the complex science behind climate change, diminishing resources, and extreme poverty. Instead, happiness is a goal that everyone can get behind. As the report states,

“People gain in happiness by working together for a higher purpose. There can be no higher purpose than promoting the Earth’s environmental balance, the well-being of future generations, and the survival and thriving of other specifies as well.”

In the same manner that loneliness is a leading cause of unhappiness, so is too much realism in the way governments and businesses behave. We would all be better off, and happier, if we just worked together for a more inclusive, sustainable society.