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Posted at 03:43 PM ET, 07/25/2011

The Happiness Index: Hoax or help?


Joanna Choukeir shows some of the cards from a DIY Happiness card game. (EDMOND TERAKOPIAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Britain’s Office for National Statistics announced today that it has decided to measure the nation’s well-being for the first time ever.

Quick, rank these from 1-10: How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

These are only some of the questions asked of 200,000 people in the April household survey conducted by ONS.

We’ll have to wait until next July to get the findings of the survey, which will go on to influence policies in Britain. But in the meantime, let’s look at the first country to measure its country’s happiness with a number: Bhutan.

A report published this month in Wave Magazine, an English-language Nepali magazine, argues that Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index is all a “hoax” that’s been “designed to obscure the true state of affairs in that country.

Saurav Jung Thapa of Wave Magazine writes:

Bhutan's leadership prefers to use the amorphous and malleable measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to claim that their citizens – at least the ones that were not forcibly evicted from the country – are among the "happiest" in the world.  Being a wholly subjective measure that utilizes no quantifiable data, GNH has been creatively utilized as a propaganda tool by the Drukpa leadership to project an image of Bhutan as a country of smiling Buddha's.  Little do most outside observers know the dark underbelly of this seemingly innocuous portrayal.  It willfully ignores the history of ethnic cleansing and institutionalized racial intolerance against Lhotsampas inside Bhutan that continue unabated to this day. 

This is not to say that Britain or any other developed country that tries out a happiness index is trying to whitewash what’s really going on in the country.

The ONS, after all, insists the decision to measure happiness came after a realization that the “things that matter the most ... our health, relationships, work and the environment,” aren’t measured in GDP. Abd the nation’s happiness is more important than ever before in Britain’s battered economy.

But one lesson that can be learned is that different indexes may work for different nations.

I interviewed Ed Diener, a professor at the University of Illinois known for his article “Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-being Contributes to Health and Longevity,” back in October 2009.

While Diener is a proponent of studying happiness levels, he also told me this: “For developed nations, we need to move toward a focus on mental health. [But] countries where there is not enough to eat have different problems. For now, they still do need to measure the growth of their economy [through GDP].”

Bhutan, it seems, would benefit from that advice.

By  |  03:43 PM ET, 07/25/2011

 
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