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Happiness: the real purpose of economic development?

Bhutan has pursued a measurement of Gross National Happiness as well as economic indicators. AAP

In recent weeks, while global financial markets threatened to implode, looters rampaged through the streets of London, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron reflected darkly on the dangers of a “broken society”, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Jigme Y. Thinley hosted a landmark international conference on Happiness and Economic Development.

The gathering of eminent scholars was co-hosted by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Colombia University Earth Institute and senior adviser to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon.

Participants included influential economists, philosophers and politicians such as Princeton’s Professor Peter Singer, Lord Richard Layard from the London School of Economics and Digvijaya Singh, General Secretary, Congress Party of India.

UN resolution on happiness and economic development

The springboard for the conference was the recent passage by the UN General Assembly of the Bhutanese sponsored resolution calling for happiness and wellbeing to become a central goal of global social and economic development policies.

The conference began with an overview of the path breaking work being undertaken in Bhutan to promote and measure “Gross National Happiness” (GNH), defined as “a harmonious balance between material wellbeing and the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of the society.”

The nine domains used to measure GNH in Bhutan include psychological well-being; time use; community vitality; culture diversity; environmental diversity and good governance, as well as the more traditional measures of living standards, health and education.

Happiness, economic development and poverty

The most striking message from the conference was the conclusion that the core goal of economic development should indeed be to maximise the happiness and wellbeing of current and future generations.

While material wealth is clearly an essential precondition for poverty reduction, there is mounting empirical evidence that economic growth alone is an insufficient foundation for building a good society in which all citizens have the opportunities and capabilities to live fulfilling lives of dignity, creativity – and happiness.

There was also strong support for the view that the achievement of this goal will require a heightened awareness of the interdependence between human beings, other species and our shared environmental heritage.

A renewed commitment to valuing and promoting human happiness and wellbeing is crucial both as a way of staying focused on a more, balanced, equitable approach to human development and as a necessary foundation for action to address the escalating ecological, economic and social challenges of climate change.

Conference delegates were also clear that the promotion of happiness and wellbeing is not an alternative to eradicating poverty and swiftly reducing inequalities within and between nations.

It is therefore vital to ensure that the inclusion of subjective happiness measures in global frameworks such as the Millenium Development Goals does not dilute the accountability of governments for delivering on core commitments to meet basic material needs.

A growing international movement to rethink GDP

As the 2009 Sarkozy Report on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, authored by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jan-Paul Fitoussi noted: “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s wellbeing.”

At a global level the Millenium Development Goals, the Human Development Index and the OECD Better Life Index provide valuable examples of the role which carefully considered happiness and wellbeing indicators can play as tools for engaging citizens and policy makers in informed reflection and debate about social, economic and ecological goals and priorities.

There are also many inspiring and creative national and local approaches to understanding and measuring wellbeing – including Australian initiatives such as Community Indicators Victoria and the ABS work on Measuring Australia’s Progress.

More than a slogan

For the promotion of happiness and wellbeing to be more than a slogan, happiness and wellbeing goals and indicators need to inform and drive policy making and resource allocation.

Citizens and communities need to see tangible achievements as well as fine words.

This will require concerted programs of public and media education as well as action to assist policy makers make best use of broader conceptual frameworks and improved data sets.

Questions as well as answers

Like all good conferences, this event led to as many questions as answers.

For instance, how do we avoid the very real risk of concepts like “happiness” and “wellbeing” being trivialised, co-opted or assumed to refer to a narrow individualstic agenda of unconstrained accumulation and consumption?

How do we build shared global agreements about happiness and wellbeing goals, domains and indicators - while respecting differences in culture and language?

And what needs be done to ensure the development of the development of happiness and wellbeing indicators is informed by broad public engagement and does not remain solely the province of technical experts, economists and statisticians?

Finally, perhaps most importantly, how can this most timely conference and this growing movement help us navigate an ethical pathway to a just and sustainable, safe climate future?

Towards a new global debate about the purpose of economics

The outcomes of the conference will inform future UN discussions on the implementation of the General Assembly resolution on the core goals of economic and future priorities for the Millenium Development Goals.

More broadly there is significant potential for these ideas to drive a revitalised public debate about the purpose of economic and social policy.

The recent London riots are a powerful wake up call about the consequences of the loss of a shared moral compass and of the corrosion of shred values of reciprocity and common good.

This conference provided an important opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we might reset our ethical compass to navigate an increasingly threatening global ecological and economic environment.

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