The UN’s most recent World Happiness Report was published on 20 March, with Finland ranking No.1 for the second year in a row, and two other Scandinavian countries taking second and third place (Denmark and Norway, respectively). As for the continent of North America, Canada was ranked ninth (down from seventh in 2018) and the US came in at No.19. South Sudan was ranked as the least happy country at No.156.
The World Happiness Report is a project by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Networks that ranks countries by how happy its citizens perceive themselves to be. It takes a holistic approach to measuring a country’s development and considers factors such as economic wealth, life expectancy, social support, government corruption, and freedom.
The project is the result of a 2012 effort between Bhutan’s then prime minister Dasho Jigme Yoser Thinley and former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who wished to make happiness a fundamental human goal. This is in stark contrast to the common way of measuring a country’s development: Gross National Product (GNP), a metric that focuses on a country’s economic productivity and excludes other important components to human life and sustainability.
According to Frank Dixon, founder of Global System’s Change, GNP is only supposed to measure economic growth. While he admits that the economy is an important aspect of society—because it enables us to take care of our basic needs—he emphasizes that it should only be “the means to the end of social well-being.” (Global Systems Change)
The Buddhist scriptures take a similar view on economic wealth. While the ancient texts highlight the importance of food, shelter, and security, these needs are addressed so that we can pursue the loftier goal of spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, those who are financially wealthy are encouraged to take care of others. They must not only provide food, shelter, and security for themselves, but also for their loved ones and the whole of society. By doing so, a wealthy person may ensure everlasting happiness—whether they lose their money or gain more, they have reaped all the benefits to be gained from wealth. In this sense, wealth is not measured in purely economic terms; it refers to contentment, a state that can only be reached when we live in a compassionate manner by serving others.
In today’s modern world with its consumption-oriented societies, we tend to place the majority of our well-being on economic growth. Instead of material wealth being a means to an end it has become the end in itself. German sociologist and political economist Max Weber spoke of the “spirit of modern capitalism” and referred to Benjamin Franklin’s emphasis on time and money. (Weber 2009, 53–54)
Franklin warned people against idleness and encouraged them to work toward cultivating as much capital as possible. This means that people were discouraged from enjoying themselves, because time that was not used for making money was seen as wasted. As Weber explains, this is a perfect example of the notion that a person’s duty is to increase their capital “as an end in itself.” (Weber 2009, 54)
Contrary to Buddhist scripture—where money is a means to satisfy our basic needs so that we can cultivate our spirituality—people are encouraged to accumulate money simply for the sake of it.
Because the Himlayan kingdom of Bhutan is tucked away in the mountains—sandwiched between India and China—and due to its history of isolation, the country has long been sheltered from the rest of the world’s increasingly capitalist tendencies. When Bhutan began opening up four decades ago, the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (r. 1952–72), wanted to preserve its traditional Buddhist values and took steps toward ensuring that happiness would remain a priority. Following on from this, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (r. 1972–2006), decided that the focus of Bhutan’s government would be on Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Speaking at the 2015 International Conference on Gross National Happiness, the then prime minister of Bhutan Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay stated: “We need to understand that the notion of progress goes well beyond lack of income or consumption to include non-monetary aspects such as weak social connections, the psychological costs of alienation and isolation, the exposure to risks and the experience of vulnerability. . . . The solution clearly lies in changing the very purpose and goal of development. If the basic purpose of development were changed from the pursuit of profit to the pursuit of higher wellbeing in all its dimensions, the true level of happiness on the planet would certainly go up.” (Gross National Happiness)
While this aim certainly appears commendable, critics have argued that the use of GNH is misleading because of Bhutan’s practice of expelling non-Buddhists and ethnic minorities. Many argue that GNH has simply enabled Bhutan to commit a number of human rights violations while simultaneously maintaining an honorable facade and receiving international respect. Interestingly, the country was ranked at No.95 in the most recent World Happiness Report.
Weber, Max. 1999. Essays in Economic Sociology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
World Happiness Report 2019 (World Happiness)
Gross National Happiness: Improving Unsustainable Western Economic Systems (Global Systems Change)
Keynote Address by the Honourable Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay (Gross National Happiness)