Tag Archives: Bhutan

Looking back at my experiences and achievements in 2015

In the beginning of this year, I formulated no less than ten New Year’s Resolutions. For me, the end of the year is the natural moment to look back and review what I experienced and achieved throughout the year.

This is how I did:

  • Live together with the girl I feel in love with last year

Yes! And it is a very special experience. Moving in together comes with some challenges. But these challenges are insignificant in comparison to the wonderful pleasure of being together every day.

  • Track and improve my sleep

Fairly well. Especially in the beginning of the year, I used sleep-tracking apps. They helped me somewhat improve my discipline in going to sleep and getting out to bed on time. But I haven’t systematically used them all year round. And my sleeping habits still can improve.

  • Expand my blog

Not bad. Especially after summer, I’ve opted for a somewhat slower frequency. I’ve taken the chance to take on some speaking occasions presenting my work in this field. But maybe most importantly, I’ve visited two ‘happy countries’ this year: Denmark and Bhutan.

  • Work on my health by running or by yoga

Could be better. I regularly do yoga, but not every week. And while I ran a personal best at the 5k (22 min 20 seconds!), I have only ran in training for that race, not all year round.

  • Celebrate my 30th birthday

Yes! And I celebrated it well, spending a weekend in the Belgian Ardennes with a group of friends.

  • Continue to do well at work

I think so. My role within our team has grown this year. And in the last week before the holidays, I won a new promotion (yeah!)

  • Travel to two new countries: Portugal and Bhutan (finally!)

Yes! I spent two weeks in both of them, discovering different towns and landscapes and learning a lot about their culture. And apart from these two, I also visited Denmark for the first time and made stopovers in Nepal and Qatar en route to Bhutan.

  • Watch at least one new TED talk per week

Almost. I’ve had a good amount of inspiration in watching TED talks this year, with topics ranging from basic income to indoor plants to improve air quality in house and from the strength of Muslim women in peace processes to cold-water surfing. While I saw many, I don’t think I got to one per week. And unfortunately I did’t attend any TEDx events this year.

  • Read novels and books about happiness

A little bit! A quick glance at my current happiness bookshelf suggests there aren’t too many additions: books on the November GNH conference in Bhutan and The Power of Negative Emotions being the exceptions. Still, (un)happiness was also a theme in other books that I read, such as Haruki Murakami’s title Norwegian Wood. And reading A History of the World in Twelve Maps also made me happy!

  • Become a better public speaker

Yes! Two and half years after joining, I finished Toastmasters International‘s Competent Communication programme. And I undertook some public speaking opportunities to talk about my discoveries on happiness.


Especially in the beginning of the year, I occasionally took a glance at the list to remind me what I wanted to achieve. But as the year progress, I took more and more distance. And now, I don’t even understand why I needed ten goals.

Goals are helpful to meet objectives and develop yourself. But if there is one goal I have for 2016, it is to have less goals…

Does GNH policy work? The answer is in common values

What is Gross National Happiness (GNH) actually good for? And how do policymakers in Bhutan really use their unique development tool?

In previous posts, I’ve dived into the methodology of GNH and crunched some of numbers behind the 43,4% of happy Bhutanese. GNH was once developed to provide an alternative to the logic of mere economic development. Obviously, in the end GNH is as good or as bad as it will be used. As an observer, it seems that Bhutan stands close to GNH, for instance in environmental policy and community life.

But to really know how it works, I asked Kent Schroeder at Humber College, Canada to help me find out if GNH leads to different government decisions. He should know: he did his PhD on the implementation of GNH in Bhutan, and interviewed around 150 policymakers on all levels.

Who’s doing GNH?

Schroeder told me that several Bhutanese institutions are working on GNH: the GNH Commission, the think tank Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS), and the government.

  • The GNH Commission is a powerful body that is consulted by the government on the GNH effects of new policy initiatives. It’s reviewing new public policy initiatives before adoption. And the GNH Commission even publishes draft policies online, allowing the public to comment.
  • In addition, there is a policy screening tool, through which the Commission reviews the impact of a prospective policy on the nine domains of GNH. The tool scores all elements of the policy on a scale from 1 to 4: 1 means a negative impact, while 4 means a positive impact. In the EU bubble, we would call this a happiness impact assessment!
  • The most prominent example of the use of the policy screening tool leading to different results was the question on whether Bhutan should join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). After reviewing the consequences on GNH, the GNH Commission advise against becoming party to global free trade rules.
  • The CBS is also a highly recognised think tank, and is the driving forced behind the GNH index I’ve written so much about.
  • And then of course there are all policymakers at national, district and local level who formally all are required to follow the concept of GNH in their policies. Schroeder tells me that the GNH principle is taken into account for Bhutan’s five-year plans. In the next cycle, GNH will be devoluted, meaning that local administrations should take more responsibility. Officials can use local checklists similar to the national screening.

Does it work?

So, the means are there to effectively integrate GNH in public policy. But does it work in practice? To answer that question, Schroeder in his PhD thesis research reviewed four policy areas, namely media, tourism, farm roads, and human-wildlife conflict.

His conclusions about the effectiveness of GNH policies are as follows:

  • The influence of GNH on policy actions is unpredictable. Policies are shaped in a complex policy process, and the level of influence of different actors across policy areas and districts. As such, the impact of GNH policy tools on policy processes is limited.
  • Bhutanese citizens, and even policy makers, often do not understand what GNH really means. There is no common concept and these different interpretations also affect the policy process. Simply put, GNH is often not understood!
  • As a result, the outcome varies per policy area. Media and tourism policies largely reflect the aims of GNH. For farm roads, on the short term policy conforms with the GNH concept, but on the long term, Schroeder doubts its effect on sustainability. Finally, for the policies on the interaction on human and wildlife – a real issue in Bhutan where farmers often have to stay awake in the night to chase animals from their farmland – the result is mixed. This is also a consequence of the ambiguity of GNH.

Common values ensure GNH

Reading this, one would doubt the relevance of GNH as a concept. But there is no reason to be so dire. Even though the process is not as structured as the concept would suggest, the underlying values used by policy makers in determining their course of action typically conform with the values of GNH. As such, policy outcomes often reflect what GNH would imply – even if they’re not recognised as being connected with GNH!

GNH: 2015 survey finds 43,4% of Bhutanese are happy

How happy is Bhutan?

According to the 2015 Gross National Happiness (GNH) survey, 43,4% of the Bhutanese are considered happy.

This figure is the outcome of the survey by the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH research for 2015. During the survey, researchers interviewed 7.153 respondents, asking them 148 questions each to distill their GNH. The number came about via a complex methodology, which is about a lot more than just asking people about their life satisfaction.

How are people happy?

  • 8.4% of Bhutanese are ‘deeply happy’ (or scoring over 77% of the weighted indicators), against 8.3% in the 2010 survey.
  • 35.0% are ‘extensively happy’ (score of 66-76%), going up from 32.6% in 2010
  • 47.9% are ‘narrowly happy’ (score of 50-65%). In 2010, this group of narrowly happy people was larger, at 48.7%
  • Only 8.8% are considered ‘unhappy’ (below 50%) in 2015, while in 2010, 10.4% were unhappy.

This shows a small increase of GNH between 2010-2015. But as Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said when presenting the results during the GNH conference, we cannot really interpret what this increase means:

“Is this [increase in GNH] fast or slow? We don’t know.”

Some of the other outcomes:

Urban up, rural more slowly

  • People are happier in urban areas and the improvement is stronger in urban areas than in rural areas (the survey is designed to be representative for both the urban and rural area in every of Bhutan’s 20 districts).
  • This is quite remarkable given the quick modernisation and urbanisation. As CBS researcher Thsoki Zangmo told me, Bhutanese living in cities score better on living standard and education, but worse on community and cultural indicators. This might suggest that the departure of people to the city affects community life in rural place of origin more than in the city, the destination.
  • But these findings are provisional – the CBS will publish more detailed analysis next year. And, Tshoki says, we need more data points to really understand these factors. Therefore, the survey will be repeated every three of four years.

More happiness for everybody

  • Roughly, improvements seem to be equalising: improvements are stronger under disadvantaged groups (women, elders, uneducated, and farmers). However, the survey design is not representative so these findings are indicative

Smaller downs, bigger ups 

  • Confusingly, no less than 14 individual domains and indicators show decreases. However, these are more than offset by (larger) increases in 11 indicators. Roughly, ‘harder’ domain as living standards and health improve, while ‘softer’ ones like community vitality and psychological well-being decrease.

Dreaded government offers good services 

  • A final remarkable finding is that the young Bhutanese democracy – established 2008 – quickly has created a complex relation with politics. As Prime Minister Tobgay didn’t shy away from mentioning, the perception of government is down by 48 percentage points. Both Tobgay and the researchers contributed that to the euphoria about the new democracy resulting in a high score in 2010, whilst electoral bickering in 2013 may have reduced the number in the 2015 survey.
  • At the same time, however, the satisfaction with government services has increased by 20 percentage points. In short, Bhutanese are very satisfied with public services delivered by a dreaded government!
View in front of my hotel in Paro Valley

View in front of my hotel in Paro Valley

How is Gross National Happiness measured in Bhutan?

I’ve already written about the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) a lot. But attending the international GNH conference in Paro, Bhutan, I have improved my understanding of what GNH really means. In a couple of blog posts, I want to outline the methodology, the 2015 survey findings, and the actual use of GNH as a policy tool.

Let’s start with the methodological part here. It’s a bit more technical exercise, but at least it helps to understand what we are really talking about when referring to GNH and where the numbers come from. If you’re interested in the results for 2015, be patient for a couple of days.

The nine domains and 33 indicators of GNH

GNH has been devised by Bhutan as an alternative indicator for GDP as a tool to measure progress or development. The level of GNH for an individual and for Bhutan as a country are determined through measures in nine domains. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH research’s nine domains (see picture below) are all based on well-being research determining their link to well-being and happiness.

The nine domains of GNH. Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey

The nine domains of GNH. Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey, p. 11

All domains are weighted equally, or at 1/9. For most domains, there are four underlying variables. Each of the 33 variables is tested through one or more questions within the 1,5 hour personal interview. For instance:

  • the domain education is measured via asking respondents about the variables literacy, schooling, knowledge about certain areas, and values.
  • Living standards are measured through the indicators household income, assets, and housing.
  • The psychological well-being measure consists of life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions, and spirituality.

The weights of the various variables in a domain are unequal. The different weights are based on scientific reliability and validity. In general, subjective (or personal) indicators have been given lower weights than objective (or factual) indicators.

How do all these answers result in a GNH score for an individual and for the country as a whole?

It’s not just a simple average. As statisticians say,

When your head is in the oven and your feet in the freezer, your average temperature is normal

In happiness, averages don’t count: e.g. a excessively low level of positive emotions cannot be countered by an extremely high level of household income.

Sufficiency targets

For this reason, within each indicator, a ‘sufficiency target’ is set to reduce the impact of outlier answers. A person is considered ‘happy’ under this indicator when the ‘sufficiency’ level is achieved. For example, sufficiency targets are set as follows:

  • ‘Six years education’ for the indicator ‘schooling’ in the domain education
  • A monthly income level of 23.127 Ngultrum (about €325) for the indicator ‘household income’ in the domain living standards.
  • For the indicator ‘life satisfaction’ in the domain psychological well-being, a score of 19 out of 25 points on five questions related to satisfaction with health, occupation, standard of living, family, and work-life balance.

Thresholds to be ‘extensively’, ‘deeply’, or ‘narrowly’ happy

Based on all answers for the 33 indicators, it can be determined on how many indicators a person is sufficient, and a judgement is given how happy a person is. These thresholds are as follows:

  • Sufficiency in 77%-100% of the weighted 33 indicators: deeply happy
  • Sufficiency in 66%-76%: extensively happy
  • Sufficiency in 50%-65%: narrowly happy
  • Sufficiency in 0%-49%: unhappy or ‘not-yet-happy’

Of course these cut-off limits are arbitrary. If we want to express the GNH or happiness in a number, I would consider the first two categories as happy, and the lower two as unhappy. But in one Bhutanese newspaper, I’ve read an article grouping the first three under ‘happy’, hence resulting in a headline stating that more than 90% of Bhutanese are happy.

How valid are these figures?

Within happiness research, there is a continuous discussion on the reliability, validity, and overall usefulness of indicators to measure happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, and quality of life. An important part of these is the distinction between objective and subjective indicators.

For instance, a subjective indicator like ‘life satisfaction’ asks people to rate their overall level of life satisfaction. Of course people throughout cultures and with different personalities would assess their levels differently. A certain level of happiness could be expressed as an 8 by one person and as a 7 of another person. In addition, the bias might differ from country to country. For instance, one could theorise that people in Bhutan aware of the concept of GNH could be under pressure to answer with a high number, increasing the average.

To some extent, the use of objective criteria – like the number of years of schooling – avoids these problems. But again, there are problems with objective criteria. Most importantly, they assume that the researcher can reliably determine what qualify of life is for a respondent. What if a person has had only five years of schooling, but is still satisfied with this? Ultimately, there is no way around this dilemma, and it is one of the reasons for criticism of alternative indicators.

It’s the trend, not the headline figure, that counts

Happiness, though, is not an exact science. Parties deal differently with this reality. The Centre for Bhutan Studies (and also, the OECD), has considered that the best way is to use objective indicators where available, and subjective indicators where necessary. As researcher Tshoki Zangmo explained me, the CBS feels that a balance is needed as they’re both important to determine GNH.

When you dig deep into these, every choice has methodological and practical limitations. Every measure for happiness or well-being is imperfect, arbitrary and subject to criticism. Of course the same can be said for the GDP measures that happiness indicators aim to provide an alternative for!

Also, the trends within the nine different domains and constituent indicators are probably more relevant for the policy than the ultimate outcome in numbers. For instance, a finding that psychological well-being is decreasing, that might be a lot more useful input to public policy than the conclusion that overall GNH is 0.756.

The present article is based on the methodology of the GNH index 2015 and some separate questions to CBS researcher Tshoki Zangmo.


The conference tent, with the stage in the front, seen from my seat among a group of local high school students.

“It’s not easy to do the right thing” – lessons on GNH from Bhutan

These days I’m spending in Paro, Bhutan, attending the international conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH). I’ll share more detail when I’m back. But this is what I learned so far:

1. GNH is a gift of Bhutan to the world

Panellists are flanked by the 4th and the 5th king of Bhutan at the podium.

Panellists are flanked by the 4th and the 5th king of Bhutan at the podium.

Imagine your country is quietly sitting in a remote area of the world, the Himalayas. Then, by launching (and redeveloping) GNH you’re thrust on the world scene. People from all over the world flock to your country to learn and be inspired by the wisdom that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”. This phrase was first expressed by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1979. Now, people in countries as diverse as Bolivia, United States, Japan, Ecuador, Bangladesh, UK, Brazil, Germany and South Africa all come to benefit from the Bhutanese generosity in sharing the idea.

2. We are in the third phase of development of GNH

The concept of GNH dates back to the 1970s and the name to 1979. But for a couple of decades it remained a philosophical concept, valuable to the Bhutanese but seen as too abstract for outsiders. That changed in the late 1990s and the 2000s, when with international support and interest GNH was further engineered to become an index with 9 domains. It also gave rise to two surveys, in 2010 and 2015, mapping the level of GNH in Bhutan. (In the 2015 survey with 7153 individuals, 43.4% were ‘extensively’ or ‘deeply’ happy).

Now we are in the third phase. The main question now is not what GNH is about, but how can it be implemented in policy and hands-on projects. There are a set of policy tools and institutions in Bhutan available, but practical implementation is patchy now. But watch this space – GNH is in movement.

3. GNH is not an excuse not to do the right thing

The most powerful presentation by far was by Dasho Neten Zangmo. She served in high functions in the Bhutanese administration, most recently as anti-corruption chief. When her term ended last June, she didn’t stay in the capital Thimphu. Instead, she went back to a small village in Samdrup Junkhar in Eastern Bhutan, to promote zero waste, environmental preservation, and organic farming (the rise of education in Bhutan has made young people better equipped. But it also results in unemployment and a lack of new farmers unique in Bhutan’s history). In Bhutan as in Western countries, everybody say they care about the environment. But doing the right thing is not easy – it’s hard to avoid plastic bottles.

The fundamental underlying point is another one: if GNH is only about providing an alternative indicator, it is not enough. We need material change in the way we look at and act in development and progress in both developed and developing countries. Or in academic terms, a paradigm shift.

GNH is not only an inspiration. It should ultimately change our actions. GNH should help us to DO the right thing.

Comments? Write jasper (@) forastateofhappiness.com.

Bhutanese performance during one of the breaks

Bhutanese performance during one of the breaks

Realising the Bhutanese dream

A couple of years ago I heard about an idea that eventually changed my life. That idea was Gross National Happiness (GNH).

It sounds dramatic, but it is true. I must have heard about it before, but I was first truly captivated by the idea of GNH through a TED talk by Chip Conley with the title ‘Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile’. At the time, I wrote a blog post for TEDxAmsterdam making the case to measure happiness and change the state.

No, the rest was not history. But everything that followed brought me to the creation of this blog, my coming of age as a happiness researcher and speaker, and ultimately to my trip to Bhutan to explore GNH.

Explore Gross National Happiness

Because indeed, four years after this first blog post, I finally have the chance to travel to Bhutan. I’ll be in the fortunate position to attend a conference on Gross National Happiness “From GNH Philosophy to Practice and Policy” at the Centre for Bhutan Studies. The CBS is a research institute on Bhutan and GNH, based in the capital Thimphu. While GNH as an idea dates back to the 1970s, it has been developed more thoroughly in the 2000s and 2010s. The 2012 GNH survey found that 8% of Bhutanese is ‘deeply happy’ and 32% ‘extensively’ happy. 48% of the 700,000-odd Bhutanese citizens scores ‘narrowly happy’, which means achieving a sufficient level in 50% of the 33 indicators. Only 10% of Bhutanese is unhappy.

GNH is not only something that is being researched and benchmarked. Importantly, the policy requires that new government proposal need to be assessed for their impact on GNH. For instance, Bhutan has decided not to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after a finding that it would not contribute to GNH.

A country full of paradoxes like any other

Making a dream come true is risky.

It can be dangerous to make a trip I’ve so long looked forward to. Due to GNH, Bhutan has long been a darling of Western travelers looking for philosophy, spirituality, and ultimately, happiness. Some Western observers have idealised or ‘Shangrilised’ Bhutan as a country.

Others, on the other extreme, have criticised the country as hypocrite for its low level of development, the use of GNH as an excuse for a failure to meaningfully increase the quality of life, or for ethnic violence in the 1990s.

Only when I am there I’ll know whether I am falling in either of these traps.

I’ve had several years the time to do my research and hopefully I have a balanced image of the place. Recently in my preparations of the trip, I read the book ‘A splendid isolation‘ by journalist Madeline Drexler. She aims to offer a balanced approach, highlighting that Bhutan like any other country on the world is full of paradoxes:

  • Tobacco advertising and smoking are forbidden – but in 2011, there was an outcry when a monk was sentenced for three years for smuggling in chewing tobacco for a value of $2.50.
  • There is a target of 100% organic crops – but many food products are imported from India.
  • Economic development is a policy objective – but self-owned business are seen as ungenerous to the collective.
  • Anti-litter laws are strict – but citizens ignore them.

Well, all I can do is promise to share my experience upon my return.

And for the mean time, I’ll leave you with a documentary that made a great impression on me. In a few words, it shows how Bhutan as a country is struggling with the arrival of modern times. Or more precisely, with the arrival of TVs – replacing yaks – in the countryside.

Gross National Happiness – an idea whose time has gone?

In a piece in between a challenge and a provocation, the Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog this week claimed that “Gross National Happiness is a bad idea whose time has gone”.

Criticising Bhutan is not new. The Himalaya kingdom famously has inspired the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in the 1970s (earlier discussed in several posts). But the country remains poor. Average GDP per capita stood around $7,000 in 2013, below China and Thailand but above India and the Philippines.

Bhutan. Photo via Let's Travel Somewhere.

Bhutan. Photo via Let’s Travel Somewhere.

A young democracy

It is a young democracy. The royal family in 2008 decided to hand over power to the parliament. The elections in 2013 where the second in Bhutan’s history and saw the ruling party hand over power to the opposition. Nevertheless, Bhutan by no means have the democratic culture similar to Western democracies. Like in many Asian countries, Bhutan has a history of serious troubles with minorities. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis have been expelled, suggesting the idea of one harmonious society does not extend to people following other faiths than Buddhism.

Do all these ills discredit Gross National Happiness as a concept to inspire government to bring about higher levels of well-being for the population?

In an interesting statement quoted by the FT, current Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay says:

If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction. Rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness.”

GNH is a tool

Both FT writer Alan Beattie and from PM Tobgay here blatantly misrepresent what GNH is. GNH is not a religious credo offering answers to all questions. Like GDP, it is a tool that should be used to judge where the government should focus its efforts. Using a broader indicator like GNH can help a state of offer more holistic objectives beyond promoting economic growth. GDP is better suited to factor  in environmental and social criteria.

GNH as a concept is not the problem. It is the lack of a systematic administration that can thoroughly implement the idea. The contradiction between GNH and basic services. If GNH is the focal point, and you ask yourself what you can do to enhance the quality of life of your citizens, the major way you can increase well-being is realise these basic services. Spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH is just as unproductive for a government as spending a disproportionate time of talking about the weather.

The duty of a government is to take care of the population it governs. That means taking care of safety and security, functioning healthcare and education systems, and doing so in a way that ensure well-being and a good life for the future generation. How can people be happy without basic services?

Any index is arbitrary

Gross National Happiness, or alternative indices offering national accounts of well-being, have also been criticised for a lack of transparency. They are not perfect. Indeed, in an autocratic state – of which Bhutan still appears to have some characteristics, there are ways to manipulate the outcomes of an index. But at the same time, GDP or economic indicators are not an exact science. They can be manipulated, albeit with more difficulty. And like GNH, elements included in GDP can be arbitrary or inflated. Should investment in research account as productive, or a cost? Should the shadow economy be included? Is prostitution productive? And what about money spent on jails or rifles, as Robert F. Kennedy asked?

There is one point where I agree with Alan Beattie. He appears to support the OECD’s Better Life Index. Rather than formulating results in one number with little value per se (as GDP and GNH do), the Index offers a comparison between several objectives. This makes it easier to compare performances in different fields, and to assess where performance is lagging and efforts should be focused on.

Where I disagree with Beattie and Togbay is in my belief that GNH, if applied well, is getting closer to the right answer than GDP. Considerations of GNH can set the direction. GNH is not a goal per se, but sets a horizon and offers a sense of direction. Where confronted with various options for government measures to invest in, happiness considerations can guide politicians in prioritising the area where the most impact on well-being can be made. They might sacrifice a couple of percentage points of economic growth, but perform better for social or environmental terms.

The main lesson of Bhutan, in the last decades, is that there is more in life than economic development. By raising his standard against GNH, Beattie risks losing four decades of slow and hard needed progress: social, environmental and economic.

A EU Happiness Manifesto

Act React Impact for EU Happiness!Only ten days to go until the European elections start!

From 22 to 25 May, around four hundred million voters from Lisbon to Tallinn and from Dublin to Nicosia can vote for the European Parliament. In a year still tainted by the economic crisis, employment and growth promise to one of the most important topics for those people who bother to vote. The campaign is going slow, and at least on the EU level, it is hard to see a clear difference between the lead candidates.

But why is there no debate about happiness in the EU elections?

An economic crisis as the one we’re now gradually recovering from is not only pain. It is also an opportunity to reflect on our policies: never waist a good crisis, as the cliché goes. What is it that really matters to people in Europe? A job and a good income are important. But ultimately, these are a means to an end: living a good life. Well-being, or happiness if you want.

So can’t EU politicians do more for our well-being?

I am certainly convinced they can. And that’s why I call on all candidates, across the entire EU, to campaign on this topic: Gross European Happiness. And my points are the following:

Gross European Happiness (GEH) as a key concept

The most important indicator in the EU is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Commission collects stats about economic growth, business confidence and consumer confidence every month. GDP is important, but has is limits. Robert F. Kennedy once said that GDP measures everything in life, except that what makes it worthwhile. As an accounting system, GDP has failed. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on people’s quality of life instead? As I’ve argued before, the EU should to use Gross European Happiness (GEH), next to GDP. GEH would be based on Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Bhutan, and help informing EU policies.

Development of a GEH scoreboard

GEH is a lot more complex than GDP. But the Commission has a lot of highly skilled staff. They should be able to grasp what GNH means for the Bhutanese and translate it to European values. They can develop a methodology for GEH, that understand how our economic conditions, community life, free time, (mental) health and education all contribute to well-being. This can be developed into a scoreboard, providing a benchmark on how countries perform – and where they can improve.

A Commissioner for Well-Being

At the moment there are 28 Commissioners, covering a wide spectrum of topics.In one way or another, all these portfolios affect well-being and GEH; for economic affairs, social affairs, health, environment and education the case is most clear. But these are various silos. To effectively make GEH a reality, we need a strong political steer. Therefore, we need a Commissioner for Well-Being to oversee the GEH process, and also to ensure well-being is fed into all other policies.

We could even grant their own Directorate-General; with an administrative French term, it could have DG BONH (Bonheur) as it’s acronym (a bureaucrat is nothing without an acronym). Commission services already assess the impact of their policies on human rights before a proposal is adopted: why not add a ‘happiness impact assessment’ to study whether new policies actually contribute to our well-being?

Education, education, education

Happiness does not only depend on the circumstances you’re in, but also on the way you deal with them. At school, we learn many valuable things, like math, science and history. Though we spend twenty years in education, we learn little about ourself. How does happiness work? In what ways do our brain and our behaviour function? How can you recognise, and prevent, mental health problems? These are important life skills, and schools should pay attention to them. The EU, for instance, could promote the inclusion of the Five Ways to Well-Being into school curricula.

Tell your candidate to work for Gross European Happiness

In 2009, the Commission adopted a policy paper on ‘GDP and beyond. Measuring progress in a changing world‘. Since, it has been silent. It’s time to chance that. Go vote. Tell your candidate what you expect from the EU. Tell them to work for Gross European Happiness. It’s about time that the EU honours the EU Treaty’s line that the Union’s “aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples”.

Happy International Day of Happiness to all!

The United Nations has chosen special days to celebrate all small parts of life. There is a World Radio Day (13 February). An International Day of Forests and the Tree (21 March). The UN calendar also marks something called Vesak, or the Day of the Full Moon in Buddhist traditions.

And since 2012, we finally have a UN International Day of Happiness.

The decision to establish an International Day of Happiness has been set out in a formal UN resolution. As the laws of diplomacy-speak require, the text is somewhat swollen (“conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental goal just means: everybody would like to be happy), the text is quite short.

The text recognises the need for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication and the well-being of all peoples“. Music to my ears, as I’m convinced that governments have a role to play via well-being policies.

20 March was chosen, because on this day, the sun is on the same plane as the earth’s equator. Day and night are of equal length, creating balance in the earth’s celestial coordinate systems. The idea to have an international day of happiness was raised by Bhutan, which bases its policies on the concept of Gross National Happiness.

Though these days can be criticised (should I only care about women on 8 March), it can be a good way to raise awareness and let people think of their own happiness. In a way, the UN recognition is the culmination of years of work that have been done to convince states and international organisation to take happiness seriously. It builds upon Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, but also on comparable initiatives by France, the UK, the EU and the OECD.

Happiness to the People!

But enough about official celebration. This is a day for the people.

The last months many of our days have been lightened up by the hymn of happiness. Last November, you might have seen the 24 video clip on his website. It is amazing to see how big the song has become since. As I wrote about before, the idea has been taken aboard by people all around the globe, who’ve created their own versions.

Tomorrow, the song will be everywhere. Pharrell teamed up with the UN for another ’24 hours of Happy’, based on videos submitted all around the world.

Watch this page tomorrow to celebrate the International Day of Happiness!

But for now, some of the local versions:

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

I’ve been hoping for a guest appearance of my friend, alas!

Brussels, Belgium

My very own host city has at least ten versions on youtube. This one seems the funniest:


Vilnius, Lithuania

People in Vilnius aren’t as glum as the word has it!


Tahiti seems the happiest place of all! I need a holiday now…

The politics of well-being

Some time ago, I was ‘converted’ to the creed of well-being politics, if I may use that term. To the extent they’re willing to listen, I’ve told many people why I believe governments should adopt a broader perspective than economic growth and fully integrate environmental and social development in their policies.

In this context, I’ve had the question whether I’m pursuing a personal political agenda behind this. I’ve never had a clear-cut answer to this. Firstly, I don’t see myself as a politician. It’s a tough job to have a well-founded opinion about everything. And secondly, as a person with a social-liberal disposition, I am not sure how large the role of the government can be.

My recent discussions with fellow social-liberals indicated limited political support for my ideas to attach more weight to policies that can enhance well-being and happiness. And at the two congresses I recently attended, it still seemed to be seen as a creative, somewhat strange, idea. But what is the purpose of our state, if not promoting the well-being of its citizens?

Part of the aversion is out of fears of governments deciding how we should be happy. Even if that’s a concern in totalitarian states, there is no reason to dismiss any government role in ‘well-being politics’. Naturally, the government should in no way tell us how to be happy. Every individual is responsible for their own life and the happiness and well-being that result from their choices. Still, there are areas where we need our governments.

In the current post-crisis ‘happiness wave’, there is more attention for these policies. Media increasingly pay attention to it. On Bhutan’s initiative, the UN introduced an International Day of Happiness in 2013. Venezuela has a minister of supreme happiness. And several countries are exploring new ways to integrate well-being in their policies.


Beyond economic growth

Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley - a politician who believes in GNH! Source: UN

Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley – a politician who believes in GNH! Source: UN

The main point of the well-being political agenda is that objectives other than economic growth should be granted a larger role in political decisions. An important method to do this is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index (see also this earlier post). If you are not familiar with its methodology, GNH by its name can come across as a vague phenomenon pursued by pot-smoking, tree-hugging utopians.

But it is a lot more solid than that. The Bhutanese concept is based on 124 variables that determine an individual’s well-being or quality of life. And apart from GNH, there are many other alternative ‘beyond GDP’ indicators.

Their aim is basic and revolutionary at the same time. Beyond GDP indicators (there is at least a dozen contenders) aim to benchmark the performance of a society in a broader perspective. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has many advantages, but doesn’t reflect the costs (in economic and well-being terms) of environmental damage and social inequality.

The assumption of ‘beyond GDP’ advocates that if you measure something else – GNH instead of GDP – you’ll also act differently. A state that benchmarks its performance on GNH does not neglect the importance of monetary wealth. What it tries to do is to carefully balance the benefits of economic growth with its environmental, social and psychological impact. Politicians are increasingly aware of the promise of well-being politics. One party congress I attended adopted a position calling for the use of the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW). But there is still a long way to go before politicians truly implement these lessons. I will play my part in convincing them.

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