Can the pursuit of happiness help us build a better world?

Posted on March 19, 2016

The celebration of the International Day of Happiness on 20 March reminds us of the intimate connection between this concept and our social, economic and political systems, both in the West and in the East. In ancient Greece, happiness was the ultimate objective of development. The Greek notion of eudaimonia referred to both the personal and the collective state of being content, socially integrated and prosperous. Education, health and active citizenship were viewed as the pillars of an approach to human development that aimed to achieve personal and social integration. Similarly, Eastern cultural and political practices, especially those inspired by Buddhism, saw development as the achievement of balance: the satisfaction of basic needs to support spiritual growth. For them, the development of an individual’s inner dimension was a crucial precondition for social prosperity.

Throughout history the concept of happiness intersected religions, cultures and political processes, with the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 considering the pursuit of happiness an essential and inalienable right, alongside life and liberty. In contemporary societies, however, we have lost this connection, pursuing development policies that are mainly focussed on consumption and accumulation of goods, regardless of whether these really contribute to our personal and social prosperity. Research has shown that, after a few basic needs are satisfied, the continuous consumption of new goods and services triggers a vicious circle. Satisfaction is indeed a relational phenomenon: we gauge our level of contentedness by that of other people. As continuous growth prompts more expenses around us, we feel psychologically and socially compelled to consume more to keep up. This is what the British psychologist Michael Eysenck termed ‘the hedonic treadmill’: in an economic system that is anchored to consumption, we have to keep running just to stay in the same place.

The current global debate on the inadequacies of the mainstream approach to economic growth, especially the role of the gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic success, has revitalised a political interest in happiness as a potential alternative path to development. In the 1970s, the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny country situated in the Himalayas, between the world’s most populous countries, India and China, broke ranks with the rest of the international community and declared ‘gross national happiness’ (GNH) the ultimate goal of economic policy. Since 2008, Bhutan has been running a series of surveys to measure the attainment of GNH across the population. They have defined GNH according to nine dimensions, including education, health, community vitality, environment and time use. Interestingly, they do not measure consumption (as we do with GDP), but rather living standards, which represents a much more nuanced approach to evaluating the satisfaction of material and psychological needs. The World Happiness Report, a project coordinated by economist Jeffrey Sachs in collaboration with ‘happiness expert’ and professor at the London School of Economics, Richard Layard, the 2016 edition of which was launched a few days ago, ranks countries on the basis of evaluations of subjective wellbeing through opinion surveys. Since 2012, when it was formally launched, it has consistently shown that countries with high levels of consumption, such as the United States, fall way behind those with a more balanced approach to development, like Iceland, Costa Rica and New Zealand. South Africa sits around the bottom of the global ranks, behind Iran and Bangladesh.

Despite its popularity, the concept of happiness is arguably too person-specific to become a guiding parameter for policy-making. Subjective data is useful but inevitably runs the risk of misdirecting decisions. Indeed, people can easily get used to structural abuse and oppression, adjusting their perceived happiness to whatever condition they live in. The flipside of the hedonic treadmill is a phenomenon known as adaptive preferences, the natural predisposition of humans to accept their condition of deprivation as a given. This is why the Bhutanese government avoids using perceptions and subjective evaluations for their GNH. Their methodology understands happiness as ‘sufficiency’ and gauges the extent to which citizens achieve a collectively agreed sufficient level of material, social and spiritual satisfaction. As factors that exceed the level of sufficiency do not count as national success, the government has an incentive to pay extra attention to those falling behind: precisely the opposite of what most governments’ economic policies focus on these days.

If not happiness, which is ultimately the outcome of both personal and social dynamics, certainly wellbeing should become a driving principle in development policy. The past few years have seen a proliferation of wellbeing indicators focussing on objective dimensions, from education to health and decent work, which are common factors of prosperity that cut across cultures and geographic locations. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 provide further indication that human and ecological wellbeing must become the cornerstones for the evaluation and planning of development policies, replacing economic growth and consumption. The problem is that our governance systems, from the way in which we elect politicians to our approach to business success, reward consumption and profits, not improvements in wellbeing. What is needed therefore is a governance revolution. Not only do we need to ‘dethrone’ the all-important GDP to allow wellbeing indicators to dominate public debates and economic policies, but we need innovations in public institutions and in the corporate world to support a transition towards a political economy based on wellbeing.


Prof Lorenzo Fioramonti (@lofioramonti) is director of the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria and a member of


- Author Prof Lorenzo Fioramonti

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