The North-South Institute



Is Happiness a Better Measure of Progress?

April 2, 2012


The North-South Institute

Another day. Another U.N. meeting.  Another twitter hashtag. The topic of the meeting was upbeat: happiness, and how it may be a better approach to measuring and supporting development.  The hashtag was a good joke or an unfortunate mistake:#UNhappiness.

The meeting, held at the U.N. in New York yesterday, was the result of Resolution 65/306, ‘Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development’, which was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in July 2011. The resolution empowered the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene a high-level meeting on happiness as part of this week’s 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly.

The Kingdom of Bhutan has developed, and is an advocate of, Gross National Happinessas a measure of progress. The Gross National Happiness Index, the metric developed to measure levels of happiness amongst the Bhutanese, covers nine domains: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.  As economic indicators of progress, such as Gross National Product (G.N.P), become increasingly challenged because of their unidimensionality, approaches such as Bhutan’s are getting serious attention.

The first World Happiness Report, edited by Canadian academic John HelliwellRichard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, was prepared for yesterday’s conference.  As the editors discuss in a Huffington Post piece, the report outlines how the happiness of the world’s population can be measured, and how countries currently rank.   The report’s analysis captures income, but finds that it explains only one- eighth of the variation in happiness between countries.  Other factors that matter are divided into those that are mainly social, such as the degree of corruption, and personal freedom and security, and those that are mainly personal, such as mental health.  The results are perhaps unsurprising: the four happiest countries are in Northern Europe and the four least happy countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.  Canada ranks fifth. When it comes to the United States, “life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.”

So is happiness a better way to measure development? While it certainly is more holistic than purely economic measures, it hasn’t been wholeheartedly accepted. For example,Charles Kenny, development progress guru from the Center for Global Development, hasargued that considerable caution should be taken when using subjective well-being polls – such as those used in the World Happiness Report – to measure development, and design public policy.

Regardless of whether happiness is a better way to measure a society’s progress, one thing is certain. Multidimensional measures of development will continue to get serious attention.  As the Commission on the Measurement of Economic and Social Progress, established by President Sarkozy in 2008 and chaired by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz attests, there are heavy hitters behind the push to measure development in more multidimensional ways.

With discussions about what should constitute the post-2015 framework in full swing, how we should define, strive for, and measure development will get increasing attention.  While the efficacy of these debates can seem questionable, and the analysis overwhelmingly statistical, there’s no doubt in my mind that they matter. As Stiglitz has argued, ‘What we measure affects what we do.  If we have the wrong metrics, we will strive for the wrong things.’

Kate Higgins leads the Governance for Equitable Growth program. Her research interests include economic growth, trade, inequality, wealth redistribution and poverty dynamics. She also has a keen interest in the political economy of development. Ms. Higgins has worked extensively on global development frameworks, such as the UN Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 development framework. Previously, she was a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London and an officer with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). She holds an M Phil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford, and a B Ec. (Social Sciences) from the University of Sydney.