Can and Should Governments Promote Happiness?

Back in February, the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of a “minister of state for happiness” that would “align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction”, whatever that means. (The same statement announced the creation of minister for tolerance, perhaps in response to the country’s rapidly growing multicultural population.)

Needless to say, the idea of a “happiness minister” was met with a lot of confusion and amusement, both from within the country and beyond. What does it means to promote happiness on a policy level? What would this entail? And should governments even take it upon themselves to worry about this?

As The Washington Post points out, the U.A.E. is only the latest of several countries to go this route. Both Ecuador and Venezuela announced similar initiatives in 2013 — a state secretary of “good living / well-being” and a “vice ministry of supreme social happiness”, respectively — and the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan pioneering the concept back in 1972 with its “gross national happiness” (GNH) index.

In theory, these ministries work to try to improve the levels of happiness in the countries through a variety of policies. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that despite its grandiose name, Venezuela’s ministry actually has a “pretty reasonable mandate” – measuring the effectiveness of the government’s various social welfare programs. In Ecuador, Ehlers has implemented or plans to implement a variety of policies that included both labeling foods based on their health values and meditation classes for schoolchildren, the Miami Herald reported last year.

Bhutan’s GNH measure is especially interesting, as it was devised to shift public policy focus away from economic concerns — as signified by the near-universal interest in gross domestic product (GDP) and towards promoting several components of happiness, such as mental and physical health, leisure time, and standard of living.

While there is no minister directly responsible for happiness in the tiny Himalayan nation, the Gross National Happiness Commission is tasked with surveying the levels of happiness in the nation. The information they gather is then used by the government to make decisions.

Butan’s big idea has since proven popular around the world and now a variety of countries all around the world – including Thailand and the United Kingdom – have begun measuring happiness with an aim to using it to devise policy. Dubai actually announced plans for its own Happiness Index in 2014, with Hussain Lootah, director general of the municipality, telling the National newspaper that it would be designed to “create an excellent city that provides the essence of success and comfort of sustainable living.”

Interestingly, despite leading the way in prioritizing social well being as government policy, Bhutan’s performance has been mixed at best: according to the most recent U.N. World Happiness Report, which was inspired by the GNH idea, the country ranks only 79th out of 158, not terrible but not all that great. Bhutan has also dealt with faced issues such as pervasive poverty and discrimination against non-Buddhist minorities.

Believe it or not, the same U.N. report ranked Venezuela a respectable 44th in 2016, a significant drop since 19th in 2012, when the Orwellian-sounding “vice ministry of supreme social happiness” was created. Given the country’s plethora of social, economic, and political problems — ranging from food shortages to high crime — this decline is unsurprising, though still not as damaging as one would think.

For their part, Bhutan ranked 84th, the U.A.E. 28th, and Ecuador 51st. (Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the report’s results and methodology here.) As The Post points out, the top ten countries — all of which were northern European states and small Anglophone nations — had another thing in common besides being wealthy liberal democracies:

None of the top 10 countries rated “happiest” in the U.N. report have a government ministry devoted to happiness – although given the rarity of such ministries, it’d be very surprising if they did. There’s certainly little doubt that government policies can influence levels of happiness, but whether an entire ministry is needed is not so certain. Generally, when it comes to improving levels of happiness, “what matters is how things are done across government as a whole,” says John Helliwell, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. And Carol Graham, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied attempts to measure well-being, says that the creation of ministries for happiness can be a “diversion” and may even “border on the government telling people how to be happy or that they should be happy.”

And while most of the top nations were indeed highly developed, broadly prosperous states, there was a smattering or poorer or middle-income countries, such as Costa Rica (14th place), Puerto Rico (15th), Mexico (21st), Chile (24th), and Panama (25th). It goes to show that, as with individuals, there is no magic bullet when it comes to well-being and life satisfaction.

Granted, it seems to be the general rule that financial wealth, stability, and freedom — both on an individual and societal level — generally correlates with happiness. But values, community life, leisure time, and culture count for a lot, too; people or places that are lacking in some factors, but excel in others, might still end up happier on the whole.

In my view, the best thing governments can do is create the proper conditions within which happiness can thrive — effective rule of law that safeguards personal safety and stability, less intrusion into civil liberties, more public spaces for leisure and community engagement, and so on. In other words, cultivate a physical and social environment that maximizes the individual’s ability to improve their own well being. More proactive measures, such as making healthcare and education more accessible, would certainly help, too, but this could be politically unpalatable in places wary of government intrusion, like the U.S. (which, by the way, ranked a good 13th place in the U.N. happiness report.)

What are your thoughts?

 

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