GDP is a bit old-fashioned. Economists have heavily relied on GDP to guide national and international policy, however, many economists are jumping onto a new bandwagon that finds its origins in the small, Buddhist nation of Bhutan: Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH). Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, introduced GDH as an alternative to GDP in guiding Bhutanese public policy. The United Nations took note, adopting a resolution in 2011 inviting nations to follow in Bhutan’s footsteps and pursue measures to increase public happiness, recognizing that GDP “by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect…the well-being of people in a country”. Many economists echoed the UN resolution, finding that GDP could not account for social and environmental costs and benefits in the way GNH could. The UN eventually issued its first global happiness index, attempting to quantify human happiness. However, some Bhutanese have distanced themselves from the UN’s reports, finding that methodologies on measuring happiness may differ. Issues such as respecting the cross-cultural differences in the human psyche and correctly defining happiness make measuring global happiness a formidable task.

Homogenizing Human Happiness

The first issue to address is whether or not it is worth using a global happiness metric to determine domestic and international policy in the first place. A potential side-effect of using a global happiness metric to guide international and domestic policy is that it could result in an unnecessary homogenization of the human psyche. The adoption of global standards for handling psychological issues could lead to countries adopting traits uncharacteristic to them. Evidence suggests that the introduction of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s primary tool for diagnosing mental illness, led to a dramatic increase in depression in Japan, which the Japanese previously had viewed as a rare disease. In fact, the sharing of mental-health guidelines, including guidelines seeking to increase happiness, may lead to some cultures changing their conceptions of mental health as a whole. This may not be a bad thing as long as it achieves greater public well-being. However, there is still an argument that global diversity of the human psyche is intrinsically valuable. As well, it may not be necessary to create internationally shared guidelines when national or local guidelines are sufficient and more effective. However, even if policies for promoting happiness were decentralized to individual countries, there is still a problem of determining what happiness is.

The Definition Problem

The most obvious problem in developing global happiness indices is the problem of defining happiness. Not all minds agree on what constitutes happiness. East Asian thinkers, like Confucius, and Christian thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas, both emphasize the value of education and virtue in relation to happiness. However, where Confucians tend to view happiness as coinciding with practical matters in life, Christians tend to view happiness as deeply interconnected with religious faith and not fully attainable in life

These different approaches to happiness manifest themselves among people from traditionally East-Asian and Christian cultures. A Pew Research survey sought to measure what citizens of advanced economies found to be the most meaningful things in their lives. Nations with traditional ties to Confucianism, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, were more likely than other nations to emphasize the importance of material well-being. Meanwhile, Americans, known for their high religiosity compared to other high-income nationalities, were substantially more likely to point to faith as a source of meaningfulness than other surveyed nations. Variance in values makes it difficult to devise a one-size-fits-all definition for happiness that economists can use to develop global happiness indices. In contrast, it is easier for economists to rely on easily definable metrics, like GDP, to which economists can attach a number. However, some have mustered out potential solutions to the problem of defining happiness on a global scale and finding ways to give it a numerical value.

Proposed Solutions to the Definition Problem

Researchers have proposed two different methods of overcoming the difficulty of defining happiness. Gallup proposes the first solution with its Global Emotions Report (GER). While economists generally attempt to standardize indices using objective economic and social inputs, the GER takes another route. The GER instead uses the subjectivity of happiness to its advantage. Gallup asks questions that anticipate subjective answers, such as “Did you experience enjoyment yesterday?” or “Did you experience sadness yesterday?”. The magic of this approach is that it does not create a definition of happiness, but it provides a way to measure how people are feeling under their own definitions of happiness. However, the GER is not without its flaws.

The fundamental issue with the GER is that cross-cultural differences can influence how people understand and react to surveys measuring happiness. For example, research suggests that certain cultures, particularly Western cultures, self-enhance more than others. Thus, while questions on subjective well-being may appear uniform on paper, the reality is that respondents are likely to interpret the questions in a vast number of ways, especially when respondents come from all over the world. Thus, policy-makers may need another method of measuring happiness.

The UN’s World Happiness Report (WHR) may circumvent the issue of defining happiness by focusing on trends rather than creating a single definition. The WHR uses a wide selection of variables, such as GDP per capita and life-expectancy, that tend to correlate with positive human emotion. Use of these variables could help to bridge a gap between those who prefer using empirical data, such as GDP, to develop policies and those who prefer normative arguments debating the ethics of prioritizing happiness.  However, the WHR still falls under scrutiny for its focus on tendencies rather than absolutes. Yet, proponents suggest that, while the WHR does not fill all of the cracks, it fills up most of them by focusing on metrics that correlate with happiness. 

Even when considering correlations, the subjective and varying nature of happiness makes it difficult to come up with a metric that can address the specific needs of each individual nation. For this reason, it may be in the best interest of individual countries to develop their own metrics and policies for addressing happiness, as opposed to relying on UN resolutions and indices.

Creating a Symphony of Happiness

Countries working to make the world a happier place are like the members of a symphony. Violinists should not use the same techniques as percussionists. Yet, when violinists and percussionists bring their unique set of skills together to achieve a common goal, they create awe-inspiring music. Likewise, countries should not use the same techniques to increase world happiness. Countries do need a conductor though. Intergovernmental organizations, like the UN, can guide nations along as they work to increase happiness. However, IGOs cannot forget the cultural nuances that are implicit in the process of developing happiness. As long as there is a common goal to increase public happiness and a genuine effort to do so by each country, happiness will abound.


Author Biography: Zach Burgoyne is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a Bachelor’s degree in French, with a minor in Political Science from Brigham Young University.