I was pleased to be among the invited guests at the United Nations Conference on Well-being and Happiness convened by the Royal Governmnet of Bhutan on A New Economic Development Paradigm
Experts and representatives from all sectors of society gathered at the United Nations for a landmark day-long conference April 2 and two subsequent days of working groups, April 3-4, on “Happiness and Well-being; Defining a New Economic Paradigm,” hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan. The landmark gathering addressed next steps towards realizing the vision of a new development paradigm that replaces the present narrow system based on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) model.
The current measurement is considered dysfunctional, based on the pursuit of material wealth and the unsustainable premise of limitless growth on a finite planet, while the Bhutan-originated GNH model is holistic, integrating economic, environmental and social measures and objectives.
“A great beginning has been made but it is the end that we must strive for,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Jigmi Yoezer Thinley, said at the conclusion of the three-day discussions. “I hope that by 2015 the international community will have adopted a sustainability-based economic paradigm committed to promoting true human well-being and happiness, and ensuring at the same time, the survival of all species with which we share this planet.”
Gross National Happiness is defined by the Bhutan government as a holistic philosophy or development paradigm based on the belief that the ultimate goal of every human individual is happiness, so governments must ensure this human right and take responsibility to create those conditions that will enable citizens to pursue this value and goal.
The conference identified four dimensions for the proposed new economic development paradigm: well-being and happiness; ecological sustainability; fair distribution; and efficient use of increasingly scarce resources. “The new economy will be an economy based on a genuine vision of life’s ultimate meaning and purpose ― an economy that does not cut us off from nature and community but fosters true human potential, fulfillment, and satisfaction,” said Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley.
The historical meeting brought together a select but representative group of government officials, United Nations staff, diplomats, Nobel Laureates, scholars in diverse fields, leading economists and psychologists, representatives of non-governmental organizations, think tanks and advocacy centers, and spiritual and civil society leaders. Panelists and attendees were from both developed and developing nations.
The extent of global support for Gross National Happiness was evident in the participation at Monday’s conference of high level representatives from countries around the world, including Finland, India, Japan, Israel, Costa Rica, and the United Kingdom.
Noting India’s cultural ties with Bhutan, Mrs. Jayanthi Natarajan, India’s Honorable Minister of State for Environment and Forests, endorsed the need for a new economic paradigm, quoting Mahatma Ghandi, father of the Indian nation, as saying, “Nature provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” She pledged India’s cooperation in the effort.
Remarks by eco-feminist Dr. Vandana Shiva, Founder of Navdanya, Recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, which supports farmers, highlighted the concordant need to attend to the world food problem, and received considerable approbation by the audience.
Mr. Joe Nakano, Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, expressed appreciation for ongoing support to Japan in the wake of last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake. He emphasized the importance of bonds that matter most to people (“kizuna” in Japanese), and the “Paradox of Happiness,” in which, in many developed countries, happiness is not proportional to economic wealth. A Council on National Strategy and Policy is now following up with visions and concrete measures for government policy-making based on a study published by a Japanese government commission last December, which proposed 130 well-being indicators focusing on bonds between families, communities and nature. Japan also hosted an Asian-Pacific Conference on Measuring Well-being and Fostering the Progress of Societies in cooperation with the Asian Development Bank and other entities.
Parliamentary speaker Mr. Eero Heinaluoma of Finland pointed out that Finland was one of the first countries to agree on a national set of sustainable development indicators and tools for such measurement in the late 1990s, and committed his country to mainstreaming new measures in its policy-making.
Other addresses were delivered by the Honorable Tim Fischer, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, a country which has implemented carbon taxes to reduce carbon emissions; Mr. Gilad Erdan, Minister of Environmental Protection for the Government of Israel, who spoke of their leadership in alternative energy and clean technology, especially in regard to water shortages; from the Kingdom of Morocco, High Commissioner for Planning Mr. Ahmed Lahlimi Alami, whose country has taken major steps to reduce poverty; the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs from Thailand, Mr. Jullapong Nonsrichai,who referred to the Thai concept of “sufficient economy”; and Lord Gus O’Donnell, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who related its new well-being policy and measures. The British Government has instructed its office for National Statistics to begin measuring well-being in the United Kingdom. The commitment of Great Britain to the Bhutan initiative was confirmed by the Prince of Wales who said in a video message that such a new paradigm is “an essential task that cannot be ignored.”
“Happiness is a sentiment that nests within each person,” said the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, in her keynote address. “There are many paths to reach it. But human history, as well as current realities, teaches us that the paths to Well-being are deeply connected to the respect for dignity and the creation of opportunities to freely pursue our full and harmonious realization as part of the natural and social milieu.” Costa Rica, recognized for its exemplary sustainable development record, was the top-rated nation on the Happy Planet Index, combining its green ecology with reports of high levels of life satisfaction by its citizens.
The meetings were endorsed by the Member States of the United Nations General Assembly, reflected in Resolution 65/309 passed July 2011, when 68 countries co-sponsored the Bhutan-initiated resolution titled “Happiness: Toward a Holistic Approach to Development.”
Support from the United Nations was also evident in the participation of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, President of the General Assembly Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, and President of the Economic and Social Council, Mr. Miloš Koterec, all of whom gave opening comments. The Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, Helen Clark, served as moderator.
“Gross National Product has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his inaugural address to the conference, “yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress.”
Four panels made presentations on ecological sustainability, efficient use of resources, fair distribution, and well-being and happiness, including presentations by the President of the Centre for Bhutan Studies Karma Ura and the Secretary of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission, Karma Tshiteem.
Well-being is postulated as an important social indicator of development, which adds value to purely economic indicators; this is viewed as especially important for policy makers in this development model in which public happiness and well-being are their goals.
Eminent expert speakers represented the two aspects of the initiative – economic and psychological. Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, endorsing the value and importance of the concept of well-being, said “Whatever the indicators we use, whether it’s Well-being or others, we have to be very conscious that …people are experiencing different things, and our commitment to equitable development means that we have to focus on the experiences not of the average but on what’s happening to all of our citizens, including those at the bottom and middle.” According to Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of British Columbia, John F. Helliwell, the world is moving toward both a green economy as well as policies that pay more attention to the quality of people’s lives.
Noted psychologist Martin Seligman founder of Positive Psychology (based on tenets of empathy, resilience, positive thinking, traits, relationships and institutions), emphasized the importance of Gross National Happiness in the mental health of peoples around the world. Alarmingly high rates of depression worldwide underscore the relevance of such an index.
Happiness is a state and a trait and a skill and can be learned, noted Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs.
In an appeal for a more green economy as well as concern for common good, David Cadman said, “We are living in a rock star mentality, as if there were no tomorrow.”
Prayers were given throughout the meetings by spiritual leaders from Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.
While happiness has been critiqued as a naïve concept that cannot be measured, presentations at a pre-conference meeting at Columbia University refuted that idea. Economists and experts from many fields presented “the “World Happiness Report,” released to coincide with the conference. The report lends considerable credibility to a happiness index by presenting methodological approaches and measurement tools to assess development. The result was extensive country rankings along nine “domains” or well-being indices, including community vitality, cultural and ecological diversity and resilience, good governance, health, education, living standards, time use, and psychosocial well-being (e.g. “life satisfaction” and “positive affect”). The report is co-edited by Professor Emeritus of Economics John F. Helliwell, Director of the Well-being Programme at the London School of Economics Lord Richard Layard and The Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs.
Countering critiques about limits of measurement of well-being and happiness, Chief Statistician from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Ms. Martine Durand, described their “Better Life Initiative in Measuring Well-being and Progress.”
Although Bhutan is a small country, larger developed nations and their leaders are already committed to the new ways of measuring development and progress, including the British Prime Minister David Cameron, and France’s President Nikolas Sarkozy. Both leaders consulted Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen about new ways of measuring social progress. Sarkozy has said that the focus on GDP as the main measure of prosperity helped trigger the financial crisis; he ordered France's statistics agency to integrate the findings of the study into future economic analysis.
The Gross National Happiness model has already been applied in cities, communities, corporations and schools in Brazil, a country that sent a considerable number of attendees to the conference. Susan Andrews, founder of the Brazil-based Fortune Vision Institute, showed a film about a large-scale effort in a Brazilian city whose students polled citizens about their happiness.
In two subsequent days, volunteers participated in break-out groups and came together to share plans and progress to help advance the Happiness agenda in four areas: strategic planning, expert and scholars, civil society involvement, and communications.
The planned outcomes were to submit a report on the conference to the Secretary General of the United Nations; to distribute a set of recommendations for national economic policies based on happiness and well-being to heads of governments around the world; to draft a new development paradigm; and to design a communications strategy to enhance the global understanding of well-being and happiness.
“Happiness is a way of being that comes with genuine altruistic love – serenity - that can be cultivated as a skill day after day, month after month,” said Buddhist scholar Matthieu Ricard. “Now one thing that is clear is that the pursuit of happiness is intimately linked with altruism. There’s no such thing as a successful selfish happiness… Happiness and altruism are not a luxury, they are a necessity.”
The movement has already spawned civil society organizations committed to the cause, including Gross National Happiness World Project, Gross National Happiness USA, a government-sponsored Happiness Project in Japan, the London-based Action for Happiness and the Observatoire International du Bonheur in France (Happiness Observatory), which offers legal tools and research on happiness, as well as entrepreneurship enterprises like GNHappiness, which provides consultation for business transformation.
Youth involvement was an important goal identified by the planning working group, consistent with the emphasis on youth by many United Nations initiatives. At the concluding ceremony, student Latoya Mistral Ferns presented her model of an interactive television show, currently being piloted at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, in which youth interview the public on the topic of happiness.
Since governments can make laws, but citizens must abide by them, reactions were important to gauge. Comments and questions from participants, interspersed between panelist presentations, revealed widespread enthusiasm and commitment to the GNH campaign.
In the year 2015, the Millennium Development Goals, as outlined by the United Nations, will formally come to an end (these include the eradication of poverty, improving maternal and child health, promoting gender equality, and combating HIV/AIDS malaria and other communicable diseases); the governments of the world will consider new Sustainable Development Goals for the years to follow. Looking towards this time, Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said, “I hope that by the year 2015, the international community would have integrated a sustainability-based economic paradigm committed to promoting true human well-being and happiness, and insuring at the same time the survival of all beings on this planet.”
Commentary is presented on the website of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. Opinions and outcomes of the conference are being collated to present at the new economic paradigm at the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) to take place in Brazil this June.
(this information approved by the Royal Government of Bhutan)