Happiness Indexes: A New Tool to Micro-Manage Attitudes and Behaviours?

20 May 2009

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

In the past decade or so, there have been growing calls for happiness and wellbeing to be measured in the same way that we measure Gross National Product. The notion of ‘Gross National Happiness’ sounds fanciful, until you discover that one country not only has one, but has also integrated it into the fabric of government policy making and development thinking.

In 1972 Bhutan’s then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck instituted a policy of development in which people’s happiness was factored into the government’s development policies. Development decisions are based not simply on how much they contribute to the Gross Domestic Product. They would also be assessed on how they affect ‘Cultural Preservation’, ‘Equitable Socio-Economic Development’, ‘Good Governance’, and ‘Environmental Conservation’. Collectively, these are known as Bhutan’s ‘Four Pillars of Development’.

According to a 2007 report published by the Centre for Bhutan Studies, the policy has been a roaring success. Almost seventy-three (72.9%) per cent of people considered themselves to be a happy person.

Many advanced Western countries have followed Bhutan’s example and are busy devising their own measures of subjective wellbeing. For example, Australia has the Australian Unity Index of Wellbeing inspired by Bhutan’s GNH. As former deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer urges in the Foreword to the recent Australian Unity Wellbeing Index report ‘What makes us happy?’: ‘Australia must continue to expand its interface with the whole concept of wellbeing and happiness, it should adopt Gross National Happiness in a modified form to take account of the complexities of this OECD country’.

On the face of it, GNH sounds like an idea that is long overdue — particularly in an era when the costs of economic growth at any cost has become all too apparent. However, there is another side to discussions about happiness indexes, and one that is often overlooked in many of the articles about Bhutan’s GNH. To all practical purposes, Bhutan is a closed society.

For example, as part of the effort to ensure cultural preservation — one of the principles of Gross National Happiness — the Bhutanese government places severe restriction on travel to the country. In 2007, for example, only around 21,000 tourists visited Bhutan and, according to the website of the Bhutan Tourism Corporation, ‘the numbers in the coming years are not expected to increase greatly’.

Even supposing that you are one of the lucky few to go to Bhutan, it’s questionable as to how much of the country you’d actually see. As the Bhutan Tourism Corporation’s website trumpets in red capitalised letters ‘INDEPENDENT TRAVEL IS NOT PERMITTED IN BHUTAN’. Visitors to Bhutan must be either guests of the government or ‘travel on a pre-planned, prepaid, guided packaged tour, or custom designed travel program’.

Given such restrictions, it’s hard to find independent assessments of the wellbeing of Bhutan’s people.

Bhutan’s GNH also raises questions about the ends to which happiness indexes are put. For example, television only came to Bhutan in 1999 and, according to this 2006 BBC News report, ‘international (professional?) wrestling’ and MTV have been banned because they did not contribute to happiness. Clearly micro-managing people’s TV viewing habits is part of Bhutan’s pursuit of happiness.

This is not to suggest that watching pro-wrestling and MTV are vital ingredients to happiness. Nor is it to deny the right of a country to protect its culture from the juggernaut of Western media conglomerates. Yet, the use of happiness indexes in this way — and their appeal to policy makers and those involved in policy debates — raises questions about who defines happiness and how such measures are used.

Might the rise of happiness indexes in the West be an expression of a culture that uses the promotion of happiness as way to micro-manage people’s attitudes and behaviour?