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3 Apr, 2012

American Way is The Wrong Way: World Happiness Report 2012

UN Headquarters, April 2 – Although it is the world’s pre-eminent economic superpower, the United States is also a key example of a country where material affluence has been accompanied by widening social and economic inequalities, high levels of uncertainties and anxieties, declining social trust and all-time low levels of confidence in government, according to the World Happiness Report released this week.

The report was published ahead of a high-level meeting on “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” which opened on 2 April at the United Nations. Convened by the Government of Bhutan, the meeting brought together hundreds of representatives from governments, religious organizations, academia and civil society to discuss the issue. Writing in its introduction, the economist Jeffrey Sachs, Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University, says that the world is at stage where “the lifestyles of the rich imperil the survival of the poor.”

Citing the United States as a key example of this “age of stark contradictions”, Prof Sachs writes, “Affluence has created its own set of afflictions and addictions. Obesity, adult-onset diabetes, tobacco-related illnesses, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, psychosocial disorders, and addictions to shopping, TV, and gambling, are all examples of disorders of development. So too is the loss of community, the decline of social trust, and the rising anxiety levels associated with the vagaries of the modern globalized economy, including the threats of unemployment or episodes of illness not covered by health insurance in the United States.”

The report is significant because it is one of many now coming to the fore in what is being billed as the new world order and the steady social, economic and geopolitical decline of the advanced economies, including the United States. Similar themes were echoed by a number of conference speakers, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, President of the UN General Assembly Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, UN Development Program Administrator Helen Clark (a former prime minister of New Zealand) and Laura Chinchilla-Miranda, President of Costa Rica.

In the early 1970s, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan introduced a new measurement of national prosperity, focussing on people’s well-being rather than economic productivity. In recent years, there has been growing interest in this concept – known as “gross national happiness” (GNH) – with the UN General Assembly adopting a resolution in 2011, which noted, inter alia, that the gross domestic product (GDP) indicator “does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.”

Opening the April 2 meeting, Jigme Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan said: “An economy is not an economy if it at the very least it does not cause economy. It ought to promote prudent use of and management of scarce resources to make life stable and secure. The GDP led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. It is the cause of our irresponsible, immoral and self-destructive actions.”

In a recent interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Jigme Thinley said that GNH is a development paradigm that has guided Bhutan’s development for several decades and that he hoped Monday’s meeting would result in recommendations which governments can act on. “I hope that by 2015 the international community will have adopted a sustainability-based economic paradigm, committed to promoting true human well-being and happiness, and ensuring at the same time, the survival of all species with which we share this planet,” he said.

In his remarks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also highlighted the need for an economic paradigm that incorporates social and environmental progress in efforts to achieve sustainable development. “Gross National Product (GDP) has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress,” Mr Ban said.

“We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness,” he added.

Mr. Ban stressed that sustainable development is intricately linked to happiness and well-being, and underlined that the UN Sustainable Development Conference, also known as Rio+20, in Brazil in June will need to provide an outcome that reflects this. (See the full text of his remarks here.)

Echoing Mr. Ban’s remarks, the President of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, emphasized that “today’s unprecedented ecological, economic and social challenges have made the achievement of happiness and well-being an unachievable goal for many.”

“It is imperative that we build a new, creative guiding vision for sustainability and our future,” Mr. Al-Nasser said. “One that will bring a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach that will promote sustainability, eradicate poverty and enhance well-being and happiness.” (See the full text of his remarks here.)

Added Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): “Bhutan is putting before us a framework for a new economic paradigm based on principles of happiness and well being, ecological sustainability, efficient use of resources and fair distribution, a framework which has been shaped by Bhutan’s own unique experience in applying the concept of Gross National Happiness which informs all its Government policies, an approach which integrates inclusive economic growth with strengthening communities, protecting the environment, providing universal access to health services and education and preserving traditional culture and heritage.” (See the full text of her remarks here.)

According to Laura Chinchilla-Miranda, President of Costa Rica: “The expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development, but essential as it is, freedom alone is not sufficient. From freedom, legitimate and educated decisions must emerge, actively generating the proper conditions for the full well-being of the population, allowing us with autonomy to come closer to happiness.”

Quoting the Nobel Prize winner for economics Prof Amartya Sen, she said that “The expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development” but added that “essential as it is, freedom alone is not sufficient” and the State must actively generate “the proper conditions for the full well-being of the population.”

However, by far the most forthright comments about the skewed relationship between Gross National Product and Gross National Happiness are contained in the World Happiness Report, which begins with Prof Sachs defining the “age of stark contradictions.”

He writes, “The world enjoys technologies of unimaginable sophistication; yet has at least one billion people without enough to eat each day. The world economy is propelled to soaring new heights of productivity through ongoing technological and organizational advance; yet is relentlessly destroying the natural environment in the process. Countries achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to new crises of obesity, smoking, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life.

“These contradictions would not come as a shock to the greatest sages of humanity, including Aristotle and the Buddha. The sages taught humanity, time and again, that material gain alone will not fulfill our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness. The challenge is real for all parts of the world.

“As one key example, the world’s economic superpower, the United States, has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry. Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.”

Prof Sachs says that the world has “entered a new phase” termed the Anthropocene by the world’s Earth system scientists. This newly invented term combines two Greek roots: “anthropo,” for human; and “cene,” for new, as in a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene is the new epoch in which humanity, through its technological prowess and population of 7 billion, has become the major driver of changes of the Earth’s physical systems, including the climate, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity.

“The Anthropocene will necessarily reshape our societies. If we continue mindlessly along the current economic trajectory, we risk undermining the Earth’s life support systems – food supplies, clean water, and stable climate – necessary for human health and even survival in some places. In years or decades, conditions of life may become dire in several fragile regions of the world. We are already experiencing that deterioration of life support systems in the drylands of the Horn of Africa and parts of Central Asia.

“On the other hand, if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment. “Sustainable Development” is the term given to the combination of human well-being, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.”

The report does not spare the advertising and marketing industry either: “A further huge problem is the persistent creation of new material “wants” through the incessant advertising of products using powerful imagery and other means of persuasion. Since the imagery is ubiquitous on all of our digital devices, the stream of advertising is more relentless than ever before. Advertising is now a business of around $500 billion per year. Its goal is to overcome satiety by creating wants and longings where none previously existed. Advertisers and marketers do this in part by preying on psychological weaknesses and unconscious urges. Cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, and trans-fats all cause cravings if not outright addictions. Fashions are sold through increasingly explicit sexual imagery. Product lines are generally sold by associating the products with high social status rather than with real needs.”

The report makes fascinating reading because it destroys just about all the conventional theories of growth and development. The fact that American professors are beginning to critically examine their own country’s heavily promoted concepts of running businesses and economies, and find them in sore need of rectification, is a step in the right direction. This trend is now well under way, and irreversible.

  • Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil provided the first compilation of the four great Asian socio-economic philosophies that will shape the future of global development in a report for the first ITB Asia, October 2008. Gross National Happiness was just one of them. Download the full report here.



Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Remarks at High Level Meeting on “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm”

I commend the Government of Bhutan for initiating this important debate on the link between happiness, well-being and prosperity.

Earlier this year, I received the final report of my Global Sustainability Panel.

Among its 56 recommendations was the importance of establishing a Sustainable Development Index, or a set of indicators to measure progress towards sustainable development. 

The panel noted that, while material prosperity is important, it is far from being the only determinant of well-being.

Such thinking dates back to the earliest times.

It can be found, for example, in the teachings of the Buddha and Aristotle.

More recently, measuring success by wealth alone has been questioned in the groundbreaking Brundtland Report of 1987, the Human Development Index and the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, established by President Sarkozy of France.

Bhutan has recognized the supremacy of national happiness over national income since the early 1970s.

It has famously adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.

Such thinking is now gaining ground in other regions.

Costa Rica is well known for being the greenest country in the world – an example of holistic and environmentally responsible development.

Compared to other countries with similar income levels, it ranks higher in human development and is a beacon of peace and democracy.

In the United Kingdom, statistical authorities are experimenting with “National Well-being”.

The European Commission has its “GDP and Beyond” project.

And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has its guidelines of measurement of well-being.

Gross National Product has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured.

Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress.

We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development.

Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible.

Together they define gross global happiness.

There are now less than 75 days to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

Sustainable development is one of the top priorities for my second term.

The world stands at a crossroads.

We need everyone – government ministers and policy makers, business and civil society leaders, and young people – to work together to transform our economies… to place our societies on a more just and equitable footing… and to protect the resources and ecosystems on which our shared future depends.

Connecting the dots between these issues — between water, food and energy security, climate change, urbanization, poverty, inequality and the empowerment of the world’s women – lies at the heart of sustainable development.

But it will take resolute will from all sectors of society.

Sustainable development recognizes that our economic, social and environmental objectives are not competing goals that must be traded off against each other, but are interconnected objectives that are most effectively pursued together in a holistic manner.

We need an outcome from Rio+20 that reflects this.

An outcome that says that happiness and well-being are measured in more than gross national income – and that they are fundamental goals in themselves.

I thank the Government of Bhutan, and the Prime Minister, for convening this meeting, and I wish you a most productive debate.



President of the UN General Assembly Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser Remarks At The High-Level Meeting On Well-Being And Happiness: Defining A New Economic Paradigm

I would like to thank the Permanent Representative of Bhutan, Ambassador Lhatu Wangchuk, for inviting me to address this meeting.

I would also like to commend Bhutan for having the foresight and wisdom to propose the theme of “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” as the principle theme for this high-level meeting.

As Member States reaffirmed in resolution 65/309, happiness is a fundamental human goal.

Striving for its attainment is a universal aspiration we all share. 

Today’s unprecedented ecological, economic and social challenges have, however, made the achievement of happiness and well-being an unachievable goal for many.

I would submit, therefore, that it is imperative that we build a new, creative guiding vision for sustainability and our future.

One that will bring a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach that will promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance well-being and happiness.

In particular, as the theme of today’s meeting suggests, a sustainability-based economic paradigm is needed.

A paradigm that takes into consideration economic growth and environmental protection, and tangibly leads to greater well-being and happiness.

I would therefore encourage Member States to consider adopting practical steps towards policy shifts that will enable a sustainability-based economic paradigm.

Our host today, the Royal Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan, has developed a unique Bhutanese model for measuring happiness.

Gross National Happiness aims to achieve harmony between the economy, the environment, and spiritual and cultural values.

It is considered far more important than Gross National Product, as it strives for more than material progress and the accumulation of wealth alone.

I am pleased to note that a report from today’s meeting will be submitted to the Secretary-General and subsequently shared with Member States.

I would end by noting that the far-reaching work of the United Nations aims to improve the lives of men, women and children.

Sustainable development is precisely about balancing economic, environmental, social and spiritual values.

This perfect harmony is what I personally consider brings happiness, well-being and prosperity.

As we are starting our week with this important theme, I simply wish you all happiness.



Opening Remarks by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

We live in a world where economic crises, food insecurity, conflict, and natural disasters have affected the well-being of countless millions of people.

Twenty-five years after the Brundtland report on environment and development, and twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit, our world is still searching for the formulae which will support continuing advances in human development without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

With Rio+20 now fewer than three months away, today’s timely event offers an opportunity to engage in dialogue on the agenda for a sustainable future which can weave together the strands of economic development, social advancement, and environmental protection.

In July last year, the UN Resolution initiated by Bhutan on “Happiness:

Towards an holistic approach to development” was passed unanimously by the General Assembly.  That was a significant milestone for Bhutan, and I take this opportunity to congratulate the Prime Minister and his Government on this impressive achievement.

Today, Bhutan is putting before us a framework for a New Economic Paradigm, based on principles of happiness and wellbeing, ecological sustainability, efficient use of resources, and fair distribution. The framework has been shaped by Bhutan’s unique experience in applying the concept of Gross National Happiness which informs all its government policies.  This approach integrates inclusive economic growth with strengthening communities, protecting the environment, providing universal access to health services and education, and preserving traditional culture and heritage. To help guide its policy choices, Bhutan also created a new accounting system which measures the value of the nation’s natural, human, social, and cultural wealth, and not just its material and capital assets.

At UNDP, we have long promoted human development, based on an understanding that people are the real wealth of nations.  Our vision is for development which enables people to live longer, healthier lives, to be educated, to have access to a decent standard of living, and to have the freedom to choose to live lives which they value. Our approach, like Bhutan’s, balances the material and non-material aspects of wellbeing.

The vital link between sustainability and happiness in the New Economic Paradigm promoted by Bhutan resonates with what we in UNDP see as the central challenge of the 21st century:  achieving sustainable human development.

One of the key questions before the international community is: what could our common future look like?  Bhutan is providing answers to that question. I hope today’s discussions will help us move closer to a common understanding of a sustainable future, and of how to build it.