The United Nations held a historic UN Conference on Happiness on April 2 to discuss wide discrepancies in levels of happiness worldwide and whether countries should track happiness in addition to other more standard economic measures. The meeting drew 600 delegates, including leaders and scholars from around the world. The main consequence of the meeting, in addition to exploring what is known about happiness research was to focus on happiness and wellbeing at the Sustainable Development Rio+20 conference in June. It is also likely that when the new new Sustainable Development Goals come out in 2015 (a re-working of the Millennium Goals) happiness will be on the list of priorities, joining the stalwarts like anti-poverty and educational goals.
The UN meeting follows on the visible efforts of Nicholas Sarkozy (the so called Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission) in 2009 and the decision in 2010 of the UK government to begin measuring happiness regularly.
Attending the conference were, among others, my colleague Robert Putnam, Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, Costa Rican president Laura Chincill, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley.
“The US has had a three time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn’t budged” [Jeffrey Sachs]
Sachs suggested that there were much more efficient strategies, as shown by other countries, for how to achieve higher levels of average wellbeing than to focus on boosting the size of the economy, as the US has done.
P.M. Thinley (whose country Bhutan has endorsed Gross National Happiness) suggested that focusing on happiness worldwide was essential if the world was to get on a sustainable trajectory. Last summer, led by Bhutan, the UN unanimously adopted a measure “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.”
Sachs, John Helliwell (a friend and colleague) and Richard Layard, helped produce the interesting background World Happiness Report for the conference which both discusses worldwide variation in happiness and scientific evidence that happiness can be reliably measured and is meaningful.
The Guardian article by Mark Williamson also describes a conference the day before the UN Conference: “[G]lobal experts debated the cutting edge of wellbeing research. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, had explained how happiness is a skill that can be learned; public policy expert Robert Putnam showed us the vital importance of social connections; economist Joseph Stiglitz highlighted the flaws with GDP; Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explained the reciprocal benefits of altruism; and Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, reminded us that there’s much more to a flourishing life than just the absence of misery.”
Excerpt from World Happiness Report:
We live in an age of stark contradictions. The world enjoys technologies of unimaginable sophistication; yet has at least one billion people without enough to eat each day. The world economy is propelled to soaring new heights of productivity through ongoing technological and organizational advance; yet is relentlessly destroying the natural environment in the process. Countries achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to new crises of obesity, smoking, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life.
These contradictions would not come as a shock to the greatest sages of humanity, including Aristotle and the Buddha. The sages taught humanity, time and again, that material gain alone will not fulfill our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness. The challenge is real for all parts of the world.
As one key example, the world’s economic superpower, the United States, has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry. Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.
The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. If we continue mindlessly along the current economic trajectory, we risk undermining the Earth’s life support systems – food supplies, clean water, and stable climate – necessary for human health and even survival in some places. On the other hand, if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment. “Sustainable Development” is the term given to the combination of human well-being, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.”
Prince Charles, who attended and gave a talk, said: “The grim reality is that our planet has reached a point of crisis. The time for us to act is rapidly running out. We are facing what could be described as a ‘perfect storm’: the combination of pollution and over-consumption of finite natural resources; the very real risk of catastrophic climate change; unprecedented levels of financial indebtedness, and a population of seven billion that is rising fast.”
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his introductory remarks commented: ““Gross National Product (GNP) has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress. We need a new economic paradigm that recognises the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental wellbeing are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.” Read his introductory remarks here.
For more on the link between social capital and wellbeing, read “Social Capital, The Economy, and Wellbeing” (John Helliwell).