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UN talks of swapping GDP for gross national happiness

Wednesday, April 04, 2012    

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UNITED NATIONS - SHOULD happiness figure in a nation's bottom line? And should the concept of Gross National Product be replaced by Gross National Happiness?

Bhutan's Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley told a high-level UN meeting Monday that it not only should but that it must if mankind is to avoid its current unsustainable and self-destructive course.

Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation which tops Asia in the United Nations' First World Happiness Report, convened the meeting seeking to develop a new economic model based on principles of happiness and well being.

"The GDP-lead 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," Thinley said. "The purpose of development must be to create enabling conditions through public policy for the pursuit of the ultimate goal of happiness by all citizens."

The conference titled "Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm", brought together hundreds of representatives of government — including Costa Rican President Laura Chincilla — academics and other civic leaders to discuss the issue. All endorsed the importance of happiness, though not necessarily Bhutan's proposed index.

Jeffery Sachs, a prominent development economist at Columbia University in New York, who edited the World Happiness Report along with John Helliwell and Richard Layard, said that happiness could be achieved independent of economic well-being as measured by GNP. The report was released to coincide with the conference.

"GNP (gross national product) by itself does not promote happiness," Sachs told the conference. "The US has had a three-time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn't budged. Other countries have pursued other policies and achieved much greater gains of happiness, even at much lower levels of per capita income."

Although wealthy nations like Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands lead the rankings of happiest countries while poor nations like Togo, Benin, Central African Republic and Sierra Leone ranked among the least happy, the report noted that social factors such as the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom were more important than wealth.

Japan's Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Joe Nakano told the conference this was certainly true in his own country.

"A number of recent studies have shown that, in many developed countries, including Japan, happiness is not proportional to economic wealth," Nakano said. "This finding, often called the 'Paradox of Happiness,' has given rise to international discussion on how to enhance individual well-being through government policies."

The report also listed a number of practical suggestions for governments to promote happiness among their citizens including helping people meet their basic needs, reinforcing social systems, implementing active labour policies, improving mental health services, promoting compassion, altruism and honesty, and helping the public resist hyper-commercialism.

Last July, at the urging of Bhutan, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution endorsing a holistic approach to development that could lead to individual happiness and well-being around the globe.

Thinley said "practical policy recommendations" from the conference will be gathered in a report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and presented to participants at the "Rio plus 20" Earth Summit scheduled for June in Brazil. The conference is being held two decades after the first UN Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro.

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