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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


BGR Exceeds Its EWEC Target

By Tom Spies


In 2016  BGR made a commitment to the Every Woman Every Child initiative (EWEC) that it would help to advance EWEC’s global strategy through our projects.  Here is some background on EWEC:

Every Woman Every Child is a multi-stakeholder movement to implement the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2015 in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since its launch in 2010, Every Woman Every Child has mobilized hundreds of partners for maximum effect, with hundreds of organizations having made commitments to advance the Global Strategy. The partners include governments and policymakers, donor countries and philanthropic institutions, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, civil society, the business community, health workers and their professional associations, and academic and research institutions.

BGR had committed to expending $1,600,000 over the 5 years from 2016 through 2020 towards programs to advance the EWEC goals, benefiting an estimated 16,000 individuals.  A few days ago we made an interim measure of our progress to date, and found that after 3 years we have already exceeded our 5-year commitment, expending $1,844,317 towards the EWEC goals, and benefiting an estimated 30,000 individuals.

This is an achievement truly worth celebrating. From this you should know that your donations are part of a worldwide movement helping to ensure the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents around the world. Thank you all for your compassionate concern in supporting this endeavor!

Tom Spies is Executive Director of Buddhist Global Relief.


‘Terrifying’: Rapid Loss of Biodiversity Placing Global Food Supplies at Risk of ‘Irreversible Collapse’

By Julia Conley,
Staff writer, Common Dreams

Deforestation for palm oil in central Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Image by Ardiles Rante / Greenpeace)

“This should be at the top of every news bulletin and every government’s agenda around the world.”

A groundbreaking report by the United Nations highlighting the rapid, widespread loss of many of the world’s plant and animal species should be on the front page of every newspaper in the world, argued climate action and food access advocates on Friday.

Go here for a concise summary of the 570 page report.

The global grassroots organization Slow Food was among the groups that called for far greater attention by world leaders to the “debilitating” loss of biodiversity and the disastrous effects the decline is having on food system, which was outlined in a first-of-its kind report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

“This should be at the top of every news bulletin and every government’s agenda around the world,” said Slow Food in a statement. “Time is running out, we must turn things around within the next 10 years or risk a total and irreversible collapse.”

According to FAO’s study of 91 countries around the world, the loss of thousands of plant and animal species is affecting air and water quality, tree and plant health, and worsening the spread of disease among livestock—all with dangerous implications for the human population and humans’ food sources.

“Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” said Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO’s director-general.

“Consider biodiversity as a global puzzle,” Switzerland’s secretary of state for agriculture, Bernard Lehmann, said Friday. “Losing too many pieces makes the picture incomplete. Thus, biodiversity loss for food and agriculture represents a big risk for food security.”

Along with the report, FAO shared a video on Youtube outlining the dire implications of biodiversity loss. “Today only nine crops account for 66 percent of total crop production,” the organization said. “Our forests are shrinking. As they disappear so do the plants, insects, and animals they host…Now is the time to act.”

According to FAO, at least 24 percent of nearly 4,000 wild food species, including plants, fish, and mammals, are declining in abundance—but the report is likely giving a best-case scenario of the crisis, as the status of more than half of wild food species is unknown.

Changes in land and water management, pollution, the warming of the globe and the climate crisis are among the factors that FAO is blaming for the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

Declining plant biodiversity on working farms has meant that out of 6,000 plant species that can be cultivated for food, fewer than 200 are used significantly as food sources. The report pointed to The Gambia as a country where the loss of wild food sources has led the population to rely heavily on industrially-processed foods.

Of more than 7,700 breeds of livestock worldwide, more than a quarter are at risk for extinction, according to FAO, while nearly a third of fish species have been overfished and about half have reached their sustainable level, meaning humans must immediately stop driving them toward extinction in order to save the species.

In the United Kingdom, MP Caroline Lucas of the Green Party pronounced FAO’s findings “terrifying” and demanded that governments take notice immediately to save world food sources.

Leaders must incentivize the use of sustainable practices for farming, Lucas argued, as well as pushing for a worldwide ban on dangerous pesticides like neonicotinoids, which have threatened the world’s pollinators and in turn have put at risk every third bite of food that humans take.

Combating the loss of biodiversity “relies on combining modern knowledge and technology with its traditional counterparts, and redefining our approach to agriculture and food production, placing the preservation of biodiversity and ecology on equal footing with profit and productivity,” said Slow Food. “On every level, from small-scale farmers and producers, to the highest levels of government, and through regulations like those in the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), must be geared towards a food system that protects biodiversity.”

Originally published by Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

From Me to We. My New Year’s Resolution

By David Korten

It’s not likely that many of us will mourn the passing of 2018. It’s been a deeply troubled year defined by wildfires, floods, earthquakes, water shortages, financial chaos, political gridlock, flows of displaced persons, growth in the gap between rich and poor, the rise of dictatorial leaders, and a dire consensus warning from scientists on the impact of climate change.

I’ve been pondering my New Year’s resolution for 2019. Deep change is clearly needed. But what can I do that might measure up to the magnitude of the problem? A promise to turn down my thermostat? Buy an electric car? Give to a charity? Take in a refugee? The possibilities that come to mind—even those that might involve serious commitment—seem trivial, given the scale of the problem. Continue reading

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World

By David Braughton

In September, 2015, United Nations members participating in a summit on sustainable development adopted a bold and far-reaching agenda whose goal was nothing less than the promotion of prosperity and the elimination of global poverty and hunger by 2030.

This Agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. We recognize that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. (Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations Sustainability Summit, September 25, 2015)

This year, as last, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, issued a report documenting progress towards the 2030 goal.  This year’s report,  The State of Nutrition and Food Security in the World: Building Climate Resilience for Food Security and Nutrition, provides an overview of hunger and malnutrition from two perspectives: the prevalence of undernutrition (a statistical estimate of chronic hunger within a population) and a more subjective accounting of food insecurity using a survey called the Food Insecurity Scale.  The report goes on to examine the impact of global warming and climate change as a leading contributor of increased hunger, particularly in Africa and South America.

In this and future articles, we’ll share findings from the FOA report, examine hunger’s effect on kids and pregnant women, and delve further into how climate change is contributing to the reversal of a ten-year decline in the number of hungry people worldwide. Finally, we will look at some of the countries where BGR is sponsoring projects to see how their people are doing and why these projects are so essential. Continue reading

Supporting Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

The Buddhist Humanitarian Project: An Appeal to the Global Buddhist Community

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group traditionally resident in the Rakhine State in Myanmar, have fled their country because of the extreme violence directed against them by the Myanmar military. Their villages have been burnt, their people (including elders and children) shot in cold blood, and women subjected to sexual cruelty. The violence, sadly, has been supported by extremist Buddhist monks, contrary to the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness and communal harmony. Close to a million refugees have sought sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh, where they are being accommodated in overcrowded, unsanitary makeshift camps with pressing needs for food and health care. The refugees want to return to Myanmar but are afraid for their safety.

The global Buddhist community has a responsibility to show that such violence is not the Buddhist way.

The Buddhist Humanitarian Project is an initiative of the Clear View Project, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Berkeley, California, under the leadership of Hozan Alan Senauke, former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. The project has launched a new website to garner support for the Rohingya refugees.

To learn more about this project and its activities, you can visit the website at:

At the website you can learn the various ways you can help to ameliorate this heartrending crisis.

  • Among other things, you can sign a letter to the Myanmar State Sangha Council and government officials, urging them to reject the violence and support the refugees.
  • You can donate to respected nonprofit organizations working on the ground in the Rohingya refugee camps. The website offers a list of reliable organizations.
  • You can also share this information on social media and by email with friends and members of your sangha or community.

 Your support can say to Rohingya peoples and to the world that the rain of the Buddha’s compassion falls on all beings equally.

To learn more about the crisis and how to support the refugees, visit:

Being the First to Finish School  

By BGR Staff

The following article, from Suzanne Alberga, Executive Director of BGR’s long-time partner, the What If? Foundation, features an interview with Cadet Fridelène, a student in Haiti who recently graduated high school through a scholarship from Na Rive, a program that BGR has been supporting over the past few years. She also speaks about the Father Jeri School, which a grant from BGR has helped to equip and staff.      

 Na Rive scholarship student Cadet Fridelène will not be returning to school this year. And it’s for the best possible reason: she graduated in June!

cadetoneCadet is entering a world of possibility that would not be open to her without your support. She is a wonderful example of the intelligence, determination, and hope that our partner, Na Rive, see in their students every day. And as you’ll hear from Cadet, the financial support and encouragement she received over the last six years has changed the course of her life.

The Father Jeri School begins its second academic year in just a couple of weeks. With your support, we can change the lives of many more children and expand the grade levels offered at the school so students like Cadet can proudly graduate in their own community.


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