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The UAE created a minister of happiness, but what does that even mean?

The Dubai skyline, with the Burj Khalifa illuminated at center. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

Can a government regulate happiness? That's the question being asked now by many in the United Arab Emirates, after the government announced that it would be creating a "minister of state for happiness" on Monday – a move that is part of a broader shake-up of the Gulf states' leadership that also saw the creation of a minister of state for tolerance and a number of young politicians appointed.

On Twitter, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, said that the happiness minister position would "align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction." Judging from social media, the reaction to the move ranged from celebration to bemusement. Arabic language Twitter users began using the hashtag #If_you_were_the_happiness_minister to discuss – and in some cases, ridicule – the new position.

However, while the position may sound unusual, it's hardly unique. In 2013, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced the creation of a new "vice ministry of supreme social happiness." Rafael Rios, the newly appointed vice minister for happiness, later told NPR that the idea behind the new ministry harked back to the days of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, who had said that the ideal government would create the greatest amount of human happiness. Nearby Ecuador followed a similar policy that same year, when Freddy Ehlers, a former television star and tourism minister, was named the state secretary of "buen vivir" – a phrase that roughly translates to "good living" or "well-being."

In theory, these ministries work to try to improve the levels of happiness in the countries through a variety of policies. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that despite its grandiose name, Venezuela's ministry actually has a "pretty reasonable mandate" – measuring the effectiveness of the government's various social welfare programs. In Ecuador, Ehlers has implemented or plans to implement a variety of policies that included both labeling foods based on their health values and meditation classes for schoolchildren, the Miami Herald reported last year.

The idea of crafting policy based around happiness did not originate in South America. In 1972, Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuc suggested that the country would put a "gross national happiness"(GNH) index rather than economic activity at the center of its public policy. Since then, the GNH has been put to use, with the country's traditional Buddhist values used to identify nine components of happiness – psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance. While there is no minister directly responsible for happiness in the tiny Himalayan nation, the Gross National Happiness Commission is tasked with surveying the levels of happiness in the nation. The information they gather is then used by the government to make decisions.

Bhutan's big idea has since proven popular around the world and now a variety of countries all around the world – including Thailand and the United Kingdom – have begun measuring happiness with an aim to using it to devise policy. Dubai actually announced plans for its own Happiness Index in 2014, with Hussain Lootah, director general of the municipality, telling the National newspaper that it would be designed to "create an excellent city that provides the essence of success and comfort of sustainable living.”

Yet Bhutan's own levels of happiness after years of basing policy around it don't necessarily prove reassuring. Inspired by the Himalayan kingdom's project, the United Nations began publishing its own global measurements of happiness in 2012. In the most recent U.N. World Happiness Report, Bhutan ranks a less-than-impressive 79th out of 158 countries. As The Washington Post's Simon Denyer observed in 2011, the idea of a happiness-based policy in Bhutan faced a variety of hurdles, including a troubled modernization and disputes with the Bhutan's non-Buddhist ethnic minorities.

Venezuela's ranking would seem more positive – it came a far more respectable 23rd in the 2015 U.N. report – but there's a big caveat: In the 2012 World Happiness Report, it came 19th. It appears that the "vice ministry of supreme social happiness" doesn't seem to have had a positive influence on happiness – for the time being at least.

None of the top 10 countries rated "happiest" in the U.N. report have a government ministry devoted to happiness – although given the rarity of such ministries, it'd be very surprising if they did. There's certainly little doubt that government policies can influence levels of happiness, but whether an entire ministry is needed is not so certain. Generally, when it comes to improving levels of happiness, "what matters is how things are done across government as a whole," says John Helliwell, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. And Carol Graham, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied attempts to measure well-being, says that the creation of ministries for happiness can be a "diversion" and may even "border on the government telling people how to be happy or that they should be happy."

Still, UAE has a sizable income from its oil and gas reserves and it has proven itself forward-thinking in its attempts to diversify its economy, so perhaps the minister of state for happiness will be a success. But given that the United Nations already ranks the country in the top 20 happiest countries anyway, it may well have more to lose than to win.

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