The Pursuit of Happiness – The Ninth Millennium Development Goal by Nicol Foulkes, NIAS

10. Nov 2010

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture here in Copenhagen given by the charismatic Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Honorable Jigmi Y. Thinley. Bhutan is a small country in South Asia nestled between north east India and Tibet in the Himalayas. With Buddism as the dominant religion (75%) and Hinduism as the second (25%), it may not come as such a surprise that Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure the well-being of its country by gross national happiness rather than the more widely recognized, gross domestic product. During his speech the Prime Minister downplayed the role of religion, responding humorously to a question on the connection between religious practise and the use of genetically modified products that he knows nothing in the writings of either religion that forbid us to explore and experiment with nature. However, it is difficult to ignore that two central tenets of Buddhism are karma and rebirth. Many, myself and Wikipedia included, do not believe that a nation needs to be Buddhist, or have any other religious conviction, to promote equitable and sustainable economic development; in the words of Mr Thinley “Happiness is the ultimate desire of any human being [and thus] must be the goal of the state.”

We are reminded during the lecture of the warnings about the inadequacies of GDP as an indicator of economic welfare from the Nobel Laureat Simon Kuznets who, in 1932, was commissioned by the US government to develop a uniform set of national accounts – the prototype for GDP. The calculation simply measures the total value of final goods and services made within a country within a year. ‘Value’ refers to monetary value; hence the natural resources that are plentiful in many developing countries are not taken into account until they have been turned into a commodity, which invariably is at some environmental or social cost. Furthermore, GDP does not reflect the value of non-commodified or non-commoditized institutions that serve to enhance human well-being such as community and family. The list of flaws is plentiful. Under GNH, economic development is merely one component of a whole, as its originator explained decades ago.

Kuznets’ warnings seemed to have been ignored for a long time. According to the OECD’s historical data, in the 19th century, GDP was highest in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. However, during the 20th century, levels in the USA sharply increased and in 1998 it was approximately five times that of the European laggards.[1] In 2009, the gaps between Germany, France and the UK have widened, yet the USA continues to be recognized as the ‘richest’ country in the world with a GDP that outstrips Japan[2] who lay in second place last year by almost 300%[3]. The fundamental flaw that human beings are making, according to Mr Thinley, is mistaking the means to happiness (GDP) as being the end; the end goal to be pursued should be happiness and not the excessive pursuit of wealth through higher GDP.

Perhaps the most telling indicator that the pursuit of higher GDP is not ‘working’ as such must be disparities in incomes, with income gaps between the richest and poorest regions of the world being 19-to-1 at the end of the 20th century according to the OECD. Perhaps even more alarming is that income disparities are not only greater between countries and regions, but also within countries. The reigning champion of GDP exhibits the greatest gap between rich and poor of all Western industrialised countries with a ratio of approximately 14.5-to-1. In September 2010, several news sources reported that according to US 2009 censor data, the top-earning quintile receive 49.4% of all income generated in the US, with the those who lie below the poverty line (14.3% of the workforce) receive just 3.4% of all income generated. By comparison in Sweden, a Nordic and supposedly more egalitarian society than most,  the highest salaries can be found within the “economic power elite” whose salaries are approximately 50 times that of the average Swedish worker. Also in Sweden, the 10 largest venture capital firms pay their bosses an astounding 95 times more than the average Swedish worker. Meanwhile in the “democratic elite” (select public sector positions) salaries are a mere seven times as high.[4] The question remains then, if the elites who invariably also hold strong power positions in society are ‘happy’, how strong is their incentive to redistribute the wealth, and how can it possibly be done? 

The greatest critique of happiness indicators is of course how can we measure happiness and does it mean the same thing to everyone? Surely it is subjective and means different things to different people? The Bhutanese government believes that happiness is a state of mind; it is a state that is reached when the body and mind are in balance, in harmonious equilibrium and therefore cannot be quantified, or even worse, commodified. Mr Thinley stresses that it was only as a consequence of great international pressure that his government came up with a set of 72 indicators for GNH that are founded on nine focus points: psychological well-being, health, education, time use and balance, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. At present, the Kingdom of Bhutan does not have quantifiable figures for the 72 indicators, but the Gross National Happiness Commission (prior to 2008 known as the Planning Commission) pursues the principles of these goals. Mr Thinley focused on the concept of GNH and so unfortunately there was little room for discussion on the measures that have been taken thus far in this pursuit.

I learned during the lecture that Denmark has been one of the greatest supporters of the Bhutanese pursuit of happiness. Most recently, 30 June 2010, the Danish government signed a new agreement with Bhutan in support of good governance. The support totals 50 million Danish kroner which will go towards constructing a new court building, strengthening the capacity of democratic governance institutions, and towards civil society organizations and other non-state actors among other things. It seems a poetic coincidence that Denmark, apparently one of the ‘happiest’ nations in the world be such a great supporter of Bhutan’s pursuit of happiness, second only to India, most of whose citizens incidentally are far from being happy.

The happy state of Denmark has been in media focus over the past few years, with critique varying in the media on this outcome covering a wide scope: from the view that it is simply untrue (foreigners’ in Denmark perceptions of Danes), to the happiness being connected to peace and freedom of choice (researchers at the University of Michigan), or simply to the prevalence of low expectations among Danish citizens (researchers at the University of Southern Denmark). Whatever the verdict, there is no doubt that the Danes have far less to worry about than the vast majority of the world population, but does that mean they are happier, in Bhutanese terms? It was my intention at this point to compare some of the questions included in WVS and the GNH surveys, however, since the day of the lecture, the website which detailed the framework and survey questions is mysteriously down.

Mr Thinley believes that human society has been deluding itself that material comfort and material acquisition brings happiness, which has led among other things to social disintegration and dislocation, to rising conflict among nations over commodities, and to environmental degradation. He is not alone. Debates and discussion on sustainability and social responsibility have been rife since the latter part of the 20th century, and currently much discussion is cen
tring round the concept of ‘degrowth’ (= ecological sustainability and social equity)[5] and contractual economics. Ironically, Mr Thinley throughout his lecture praised Denmark, a country very much focused on economic growth, for its achievements in the field of happiness frequently referring to the aesthetic pleasure he encountered whilst driving through Copenhagen. The happy Danish hosts and audience were quick to remind the guest of the high suicide rates, excessive alcohol consumption, and the fact that if everyone on the earth were to have the life of the average Dane, then we would need four planet earths. To the latter, Mr Thinley responded, let there be four planets.

For the foreseeable future however we only have one planet, and that planet is far from being in harmonious equilibrium, in fact it seems to be moving further and further away from that state with so-called progress. In Denmark, which is also considered to be one of the most desirable places in the world to live, many of the highly educated and highly skilled leave the country in search of higher salaries and greater work opportunities in countries that are considered far less desirable and where there is more social unrest and discontent, leaving their own happy state behind. Many of those I have spoken to move not only to get a higher salary, but also simply to experience differences that they cannot find here in Denmark (e.g. working and living in international, multicultural environments).

I am left worrying that the word ‘happiness’ will be or rather is starting to be misunderstood and misused. The Prime Minister of Bhutan likes what he sees here in Copenhagen: aesthetic beauty, material wealth and material well-being. His dismissal of the social problems in Denmark indicates to me that he believes that the resulting society is worth these problems. There is also no shortage of disturbing and thought-provoking reports of human rights abuses in Bhutan. Are these justified if they are in the name of happiness? Looking more closely at the lives of the people of Bhutan may give a new meaning to the idea of gross national happiness.


[1] Madisson, Angus (2006), The World Economy, OECD: Paris

[2] In August 2010, China surpassed Japan in terms of nominal GDP, yet remains a very poor country in terms of per capita income. (Read more at

[3] World Bank Data Statistics, accessed on 15.10.2010 at


[5] See for more information about the concept of ‘degrowth’.