The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference

By Randy Rosenthal

A recent UN report ranks nations by way of their quota of happiness, utilizing a complex set of metrics. But can happiness actually be quantified? Several glitches in the ratings suggest any such effort, while revealing in some respects, will always be far from perfect.

The top 20 happiest countries (World Happiness Report 2019)

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the United Nations released the World Happiness Report. This includes an annual ranking of the happiest countries in the world, along with several essays about the relationship between government policy and individual happiness. A few weeks later, on April 13, the editor of the report, John F. Helliwell, participated in a panel at the Global Happiness Conference, held at Harvard Divinity School, and which I attended.

Any discussion of Global Happiness or the World Happiness Report usually includes at least a mention of Bhutan, whose former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, invented the term Gross National Happiness (GNH), as an alternative measurement to GDP. Since then, GNH has been a new paradigm of progress and development in Bhutan. “Happiness is a place,” has become Bhutan’s motto, and the nation’s tourist department describes the Bhutanese as the happiest people in the world. Unsurprisingly, several Bhutanese nationals planned and participated in the Global Happiness Conference. The morning’s Keynote address was given by Madam Doma Tshering, the ambassador of Bhutan to the UN. In the speech, she clarified that the purpose of the conference was “to exchange views on how happiness can shape a better world.”

In the texts of Early Buddhism, the words hita and sukha, “welfare” and “happiness,” are often joined together, and so it’s interesting to look at the relationship between government welfare programs and individual happiness. For instance, one of the most illuminating aspects of Madam Tshering’s speech was the concrete policy measures the Bhutanese government takes to deliberately create the conditions for happiness to arise. It’s a movement that goes back centuries, at least to Bhutan’s 1729 legal code, which states “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no reason for the government to exist.” But the idea also has a history here, too; even Robert Kennedy said that GDP “measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

And what is it that makes life worthwhile? That is, what is happiness? Well, the Bhutanese government, along with the diverse range of panelists who participated in the conference, seem to have determined that happiness is not only quantifiable, but can be implemented as government policy.

Bhutan focuses on nine domains to increase GNH, and while some of these—such as health, shelter, a clean environment, and good governance—are found across the world, the list includes four unique and innovative domains of focus that the Bhutanese feel specifically cultivate happiness: community vitality (that is, the depth and quality of relationships); cultural diversity, which creates a strong sense of identity; psychological well-being, which is a manifestation of spiritual fulfillment (and thus religious practices; Buddhism, in the case of Bhutan); and finally, time use.

Time use? Yes, this is actually the most acute technique of the nine, according to panelist Dasho Karma Tshiteem, Chairman of the Bhutanese Royal Civil Service Commission and previous Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission. Tshiteem said there is actually a recipe for happiness: “When you align the use of your time with what you care about.” In Bhutan, the GNH office is actually feared, kind of like the IRS in the States, because they really grill citizens. They ask people what they most value, and a popular answer is spending time with family. But then when asked how they actually spend their time, many people respond they are on Facebook and social media. This, Tshiteem said, is “a recipe for unhappiness,” as time spent is not aligned with what they value. (I couldn’t help but think that many people I know spend time on social media in order to connect with their families, so perhaps this isn’t the best example.)

It should be noted that Bhutan’s approach to GNH as an alternative policy of development can be contextualized with what is called “Buddhist economics.” According to panelist Wolfgang Dreschler, of Tallinn’s University of Technology, Buddhist economics “is based on the idea that happiness is not based on getting what you want, but managing your wants.” That is, minimizing your wants. It sounds wise, but this actually means the system is not as transferable as we might think. Buddhist economics is inherently Buddhist, so trying to transfer it to Western countries might be as feasible as trying to transfer Western democratic models to countries without a tradition of democracy; it doesn’t really work. Yet while we can’t transfer it, Dreschler says, we can learn from it.

As he’s been working in the field perhaps longer than anyone else, WHR editor John Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia, had several illuminating things to say about what makes a country happy—or unhappy. For instance, he said, to live in a country with great inequality makes you less happy, even if you benefit from that inequality. That’s likely why the US ranked nineteenth in this year’s GHR, one place lower than last year—though not as low as other, more unequal countries, such as China (93rd) or Russia (68th).

In this year’s report, Finland was ranked the happiest country on earth, followed by Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. We can certainly credit Nordic happiness to the social democratic welfare state model; years ago I lived in Copenhagen, and witnessed how government assistance alleviated the strain of marriage and child-raising, allowed students to graduate debt-free, and everyone to have health care without breaking the bank. This is all very significant, for such programs eliminate the financial stress that suffocates happiness. But happiness goes deeper into the Scandinavian social fabric than that. For example, the conference took place on a Saturday morning, and Helliwell said that on a Saturday morning in Norway, people paint each other’s houses. That is, Norwegians “do things for each other, with each other.” And that makes people happy.

One panelist, Sophus Reinnert, of Harvard Business School, is Norwegian, and he didn’t disagree with Helliwell’s claim about painting the houses. But he admitted he was often baffled by Norway’s consistent high ranking in the WHR, because Norwegians are so darkly brooding. Hilariously, he shared that once the semester is over and he’d get to do what made him happy, he’d want to walk along a cold Scandinavian beach; the picture he showed his class to illustrate his desire, of a lone man in a gray coat walking on a snowy beach, was actually the third image that comes up when googling depression. His point is that happiness for one person can be very different from happiness for another. And to further nuance the issue, it can’t be ignored that Scandinavian countries also have a high rate of suicide. So how do we square that with them being ranked as the happiest people on earth?

Another wrench in the gears of the idea of happiness came from Arnaud Colley, who, in addition to being a motivational speaker, author, and “Chief Happiness Officer” for several luxury corporations, is French. “In France,” Colley said, “we are happy when we get together, put on yellow vests, and shout ‘We are not happy!’” While we can again say that what is happiness for one is different from what is happiness for another, a deeper response would be to look into the idea of happiness itself. Can shouting about one’s unhappiness actually be considered happiness? Just because we like to do something, even if it gives us pleasure, doesn’t necessarily mean it makes us happy.

And that brings us to another crucial factor, one that occurred to me when Helliwell mis-spoke; in a slip of the tongue, he meant to say, “we want welfare economics to be considered applied science, rather than something purely theoretical,” but instead of “theoretical” he said “a theology.” And to me, that’s actually a more accurate word to describe happiness studies, and the science of well-being: a theology. Like one’s spiritual beliefs and understanding of the divine—things that are unverifiable and unquantifiable—happiness is inherently subjective and highly mutable. And so I am very skeptical of efforts to quantify it, including reports that are based on such studies. The whole endeavor is similar to how evangelicals claim to be able to prove the existence of God; it’s a misconceived mission.

In the second panel of the conference, Arnaud Colley said he has two goals when consulting with corporations: “Bring joy; bring purpose.” This seems to be what we mean by the word happiness: joy and purpose. After all, as Bob Dylan once said, “anybody can be happy,” implying that happiness is a misconceived goal. Fulfillment and purpose are more important—for Dylan, fulfillment through artistic creation, a grueling act that many artists will admit makes them anything but happy.

With all this nuance in mind, it must be noted that, ironically, Bhutan ranked 95th on this year’s happiness index—despite being ranked fifth by their own metric. This poor ranking may be due to Bhutan’s Buddhist nationalism, which, like similar ideologies in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, has led to persecutions of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly ethnically Nepali citizens from south Bhutan. After protesting laws prohibiting their language, dress, and other expressions of their Hindu identity, they have been driven from the country. Several members of this community attended the conference, and a couple of them asked questions that made the Bhutanese moderators visibly uncomfortable. Bhutan has also criminalized homosexuality and an LGBTQ identity. Clearly, there is a discrepancy between theory and practice in the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth,” if not a faulty conceptual approach of looking at happiness in this way altogether.

Yet despite such complexity and my skepticism regarding Happiness Studies, there are certainly benefits in studying Bhutan’s focus on GNH, and these are policy goals that every government should prioritize, especially in developing nations. In fact, by having GNH as “the conscience of the nation,” as Ambassador Tshering said, Bhutan was able to lower infant mortality, raise literacy rates, reduce poverty, and increase per capita income. These material domains create the conditions for strong communities and relationships, which are, according to these emerging theories, the foundations for happiness.

Yet Dasho Karma Tshiteem said that because most people in Bhutan do not meditate—as they don’t in any country, Buddhist or not—the government is pursuing a policy of promoting meditation practice for its citizens. And this brings us to the most important point. Yes, it is good for governments to take responsibility by enacting policies that provide their citizens with the foundations for creating happiness, and yes, we should do things for people and with people. But ultimately, happiness is dependent on oneself, through purifying the defilements that cause unhappiness—greed, anger, delusion, craving. And this can only be done through meditation.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at


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