The happiness agenda: it’s a thing now

A couple of months ago, two important things happened to put happiness on the global agenda:

–       The adoption of a resolution by the UN general assembly evocatively called “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development”

–       The launch of the first World Happiness Report published by the Earth Institute.

The OECD has also taken remarkable leadership on this issue, with the launch of the latest version of the Better Life Index at last week’s OECD Forum – a gathering of business, civil society and government to discuss pressing global issues.

So, happiness is now becoming a serious policy matter. Isn’t that refreshing?

With this upheaval of the happiness agenda, the idea that economic activity is not an end in itself and that it is ultimately meant to help us achieve a better life is gaining momentum, particularly in business and econ-oriented news sections (see here and here).

What strikes me though is that in a way, these considerations are somewhat trivial. Common wisdom tells us that feeling love and connection with others, being healthy and feeling control over our lives are much more relevant long-term goals for a fulfilling life than GDP per capita standing on its own (even though it is of course instrumental in achieving wellbeing).

We all perceive intuitively that GDP is a terrible metric for wellbeing and social progress. Indeed, Simon Kuznet himself, the Nobel prize winner economist who standardized the measurement of GDP in the 1930s, warned that it was by no means a proper tool to measure the advancement of society.

I am not naïve about why GDP has taken up most of the space on economists’ radars. It is a simple, standard metric, used as a mantra in most politicians’ rhetoric, under the auspices of which, all progress is to occur – so it does have remarkable advantages. But one does have to wonder why considerations like feeling satisfied with your life on a day-to-day basis, health, education and the quality of the environment simply don’t appear on policy-makers’ radar.

The reason, of course, is that up until recently, we simply didn’t have the statistical tools to assess wellbeing.  But with the advancements of neuroscience, we can now assess, measure and correlate happiness to brain states – and it turns out that asking people if they are happy and if they are satisfied with their lives does provide key policy insight. And with the slowly opening up of economics, we can run econometric regressions for the satisfaction about life instead of GDP per capita – a more inspiring endeavour indeed.

Another reason is that, you’d be surprised at how difficult it is to get an economist to admit that economic growth is not and end in itself. Even now that we know growth has long reached the end of the benefits it can achieve for developed countries (see a great analysis here about the paradox of money and happiness), the growth orthodoxy remains strong, and many are those who wish we could just go back to pre-crisis economy.

Moving beyond GDP and consumption is part of a larger revolution that has to take place in the economic discipline. People are not purely rational and individualistic, and empathy and opportunities for sharing are also key behavioural drivers without which our civilization could never have held together this long.

As one speaker smartly pointed out at OECD week, our conceptions of progress derive from what is salient in the public discourse. This is why it is so important to develop wellbeing measures, and that every national statistical agency gets serious about measuring happiness.

Because there are some really exciting and fundamental policy prospects to help people achieve sustainable happiness. Exciting because, honestly, it is more inspiring to design policies directly aimed at wellbeing than accumulating wealth (through disruptive ways). And fundamental because the very concept of sustainable development makes no sense it is not oriented towards something more than poor countries filling the GDP gap separating them from rich countries while not destroying the Earth’s life support systems. This is the whole point of defining the future we want in Rio +20.

Happiness is, simply put, the ultimate end of the human existence. So it is a huge deal that it finally makes its way into the global policy agenda, with the leadership of the OECD, the UN and the Earth Institute.

Now, whether people are satisfied with their lives should be monitored by statistical agencies, and used as a guide to action for governments. We have the data to do it, and we have international standards.

Let us hope that more countries follow the leadership of Bhutan and start getting serious about the happiness of their people.