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22 Jul, 2007

Study of “Happiness” is Becoming both a Science and a Business

Originally Published: 22 July 2007

The very simple exercise of pursuing public happiness as a national development objective is moving rapidly from the leftist lunatic fringe into the sphere of mainstream thinking. Although there is general agreement that the concept is valid and well worth being elevated to the level of public policy, it is showing clear signs of sagging under the weight of its own verbiage.

At a conference last week, a down-to-earth human yearning very clearly enunciated centuries ago by visionary prophets who led by example, began to look intensely complex as it was drawn and quartered by academics, consultants and an assortment of other experts keen to probe, examine, research, analyse, define, measure, study, dissect, compartmentalise and scrutinise it from all angles, sides and fronts.

Presenters at the International Conference on Happiness and Public Policy organised by the Public Policy Development Office threw up indicators, charts, concepts and great chunks of mind-numbing terminology as they pondered whether happiness could be achieved by following the teachings of the Lord Buddha or the theories of Nobel prize-winning economists, or by ensuring better job security or by simply having a stable family relationship and some intimacy in life — or all of the above.

Clearly, the study of “happiness” is on the verge of becoming both a science and a business, when it was probably not intended to be either. Indeed, it appears to be well on its way towards becoming a full-fledged industry.

Originally conceptualised by the former King of Bhutan who was realistic enough to recognise that his remote, landlocked people, with little infrastructure and few natural resources, could not hope to become “rich” in the material sense of the term but could at least be happy (as in contented and satisfied) if their basic needs for health, education, strong traditions and culture were met.

Since its birth in the early 1970s, the concept has earned greater global respectability as it becomes clear that a world of cut-throat competitive pressures designed to meet the next quarterly earnings target and economic growth forecast is distressing many aspects of life, from the individual state of mind to entire societies and the natural environment.

Said Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, Bhutan’s Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs, “We are beginning to realise and understand that not only is our way of life as promised and indeed delivered by the conventional process of development, unfulfilling and hollow but that we are living dangerously. We are sensing a dire need for reality check and moderation at the very least, based on some understanding of what matters most in life.”

The “serious search for new direction” now involves academics, scientists, politicians, corporate leaders, religious personalities and even progressive farmers who “share the belief that mankind needs to mend its ways and rethink the very values for which it aspires,” Lyonpo Jigme Thinley said.

Thailand’s first-hand experience of the consequences of greed and the ‘get-rich-quick’ rat-race is also being cited in the context of His Majesty the King’s sufficiency economy theory. As Peter Warr of the Australian National University reminded the delegates of the King’s post-1997 economic crisis words, “To be a ‘tiger’ is not important. The important thing for us is to have a sufficiency economy, which means to have enough to survive.”

With some historical examples still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror, and no shortage of proof in terms of the widening rich-poor income gap, environmental problems and social and cultural degradation resulting from conventional economic theories, the search has now started for a better way to make people “happy” other than by making money their top lifetime quest and the core national unit of measuring progress.

This requires making the pursuit of happiness a part of mainstream public policy, and then seriously implementing it as part of a sustainable national and human development agenda based on criteria like health, personal relationships, safety, standard of living, “community connectedness”, spirituality/religion, etc.

However, policy measures need to be backed by “evidence” and scientific studies clearly identifying the problem before policy-makers can decide how to fix it, if indeed it needs fixing at all.

Here’s where things become dicey. Identifying problems means identifying their causes, which in turn means trashing decades of conventional economic theories, including perhaps the entire globalisation model. Practitioners of those theories will argue vehemently against it, and find ways to play up all the “successes” while seeking to blame someone else or some other policy for the “failures”.

However, even purely economic organisations like the OECD are begin to see merit in it. Said the OECD’s Erica Matthew, “A consensus is growing around the need to develop a more comprehensive view of progress — one that takes into account social, environmental and economic concerns — rather than focussing mainly on economic indicators like GDP, which, while an important measure of economic activity, was not developed to be the sole measure of a nation’s progress.”

Before anyone gets too excited about that comment, consider the OECD’s solution: A five-year project that will strive to gather information on “how to measure progress in practice, starting from a solid theoretical/statistical framework and taking into account cultural, institutional and technical issues.”

Although that may fit with what Thai Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham says is the need to identify how “the various studies and the emergence of new national models of development can apply to the circumstances of other countries,” by the time the proposed project finishes in 2012, it may have long outlived its practical usefulness.

Some academics suggest seeking simple solutions first, such as by establishing a minimal checklist like finances, family life, work, and health against which individuals can grade themselves on a scale of one to 10. The grade may vary from day to day but it will offer a generic indicator of their personal state of “happiness.”

However, it’s broadening this practise into the wider societal and national domain that is now the key challenge, and exactly where time is running out.

Says Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, “There is a need to honestly admit that ours and the last two generations in particular, having squandered and abused our own share of natural resources are guilty of grossly trespassing into what rightfully belongs to future generations. To that extent, we have lessened the chances of their wellbeing and the very survival of children and generations unborn.”

Interested parties will get a chance to hear more at the Third Conference on Gross National Happiness being organised in Bangkok between November 27-28. Further details: http://www.sulak-sivaraksa.org/en/