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Should happiness replace prosperity as national goal?

Posted on 8 May 2009 | 8:05am

John Prescott once gave Tony Blair a gift of a plastic fish which, if you
pressed it, would sing ‘don’t worry, be happy’ to the former Prime Minister. 

I thought of that as I read 
the views on the economic crisis of a Prime Minister with the wonderful
name of Jigme Thinley.

‘Greed, insatiable human greed,’ he cites as the reason for current global
woes. ‘What we need is change. We need to think gross national happiness.’ GNH
not GNP. Interesting.

Mr Thinley is PM of the tiny Buddhist kingdom of
Bhutan, up in the Himalayas somewhere between India and China. Hard to compete
with them economically, I guess.

Happiness has long been a measure of life in Bhutan, but they now have a new
constitution which insists any policy proposal must be judged in part by the
happiness it produces.

Even their first election last year after a switch from absolute monarchy was
part of that plan. ‘Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the
empowerment of the individual,’ says Kinley Dorji, who seems to be to Mr
Thinley what I was to TB when we had Billy the Fish in the office.

Now I still don’t do God, and I am not going all Buddhist on you, but it is
worth thinking about.

They have four pillars, nine domains and seventy-two
indicators of happiness. These are re-assessed every two years, in consultation
with the country’s 700,000 people, by the Gross National Happiness Commission.
I am not making this up. Indeed, I am warming to it.

Like me, my fellow comms
and info man, Mr Dorji, also worries about the impact of the media. The country
allowed TV for the first time ten years ago. Then, he says, if you asked any
young person to name their hero, the inevitable response was ‘the King.’ But
then came TV. ‘Immediately after that it was David Beckham. And now it’s 50
Cent, the rap artist. Parents are helpless.’

I certainly think if we were to go for a G.N.H plan in Britain, there would
have to be changes in the media. Quite a lot of the TV two-ways telling us we’re
all about to go broke or die of swine flu would have to be reviewed by the GNH
Commission. Of course there could be no room for the Daily Mail in a country
interested in happiness. So bye-bye Mr Dacre. Sorry, as the Evening Standard
adverts say.

Talking of which – as the worst aspects of the Standard’s
negativity happened when Dacre was bossing former editor Veronica Wadley, I
look forward to the ‘Sorry’ campaign from the Mail. They could start with an
apology for the role they played in fuelling a frenzy about MMR. ‘Sorry for
giving you measles – the Daily Mail’. Let’s see that one on the tube.

Anyway, I slept better thank you, so my own contribution to GNH is up. I am
getting some good tips too from the two very nice women who have been
organising my Lisbon media schedule as I promote Os Anos Blair. Fair to say
they find my obsessive punctuality a bit, well, British. Why stress myself out
worrying about keeping a few journos waiting? It’s so not GNH.

They’ve even been quo

ting poetry at me as I remind them
we are running late … Fernando Pessoa ‘oh what a pleasure it is to have
something to do and not do it.’

Or take a chill pill, as my daughter sometimes says. I bet they have chill
pills in Bhutan. I bet Fernando Pessoa is on the curriculum.

One day I may
go and find out. Meanwhile off to do my speech on crisis management.

Rule 1 – don’t worry, be happy.


  • Tony

    I don’t think it would work in the Western democracies. The temptation for a race to populism would be too high at election time.

    Also, think about how fast voters go from feeling happy about the outcomes of good policy to taking them for granted.

    At least with $$ you can point to a reasonably non-subjective metric and say ‘see, we did good’. Tough to do that with happiness…

  • Malcolm Kelly

    Do the people there call Jigme Thinley ‘thiganmmyjig’? That would cheer them up. Nothing like a good nickname. Also, do the ministers get to claim on bathplugs and stuff?

  • Fran Pooley

    I think you are being light hearted in the main but the point about the Mail and measles is a serious one. There is no doubt in my view that the media played a grossly irresponsible role in that period when they were trying to embarrass Mr Blsir over MMR and whether Leo had had the vaccine. They are always going on about inquiries. There should be a public inwuiry not just into that dreadful man Wakefield but also into the role of the media in fuelling concern which as you say is now causing measles

  • Alina Palimaru

    A very thought provoking blog, Alastair. There are degrees of unhappiness, obviously, but I assume a lot of it has to do with the stress of the commercial culture. I am assuming that in Bhuttan, the rise of the TV inevitably brought about the rise of consumerism and the social pressure to emulate media icons. Much of what we agonize about these days stems from the tension between what we truly need to live a decent life and what we want (as induced by advertisements). In other words, it’s the difference between life as ‘to have’ and life as ‘to be’. A similar effect occurred in remote islands in the Pacific, where the introduction of TV shows like Baywatch reportedly wreaked havoc among women. Women who had been perfectly happy before TV and Baywatch, grew increasingly dissatisfied with their body image and developed eating disorders. Quite an impact, I’d say.

  • Rebecca King

    Interesting blog, The GNH Commission would have their work cut out wouldn’t they!

  • Wyrdtimes

    But what about equality? Some people will always be happier than others. Which is obviously unfair.

    The state will have to intervene to make everyone equally happy. And as its easier to make the happy miserable than the miserable happy the government will no doubt concentrate on bringing us all down to the lowest level.

    It will probably manifest as some form of happiness tax – shhh don’t tell Mc Broon – he’ll like the idea.

  • Brian Hughes

    It’s distressing to find myself agreeing with something Norman Tebbit said many years ago about the Today programme’s mission seemingly being to send every listener off to work feeling miserable.

    I think the founder of the Daily Mail boasted that he’d established it to give the lower orders something to be really angry about every day.

    Even faster than deadly Bird Flu (remember that?), miserablism has now infected most of the UK’s media. But there is hope – I’m writing a book about how to be happy.

    I bet you can hardly wait…

  • Vince Stevenson

    I think people can derived happiness through their home and family lives, as well as through having interesting and rewarding work. Most people struggle these days with finding the balance between the two. Naturally, the banking crisis, loss of faith in the present government, swine flu and a damp spring are all conspiring to remove our sense of happiness. With a new government and hopefully a booming economy in the coming years, everybody I hope will find their happiness equilibrium.

    Rgds Vince

  • Laura Payne

    As Benthamites and utilitarian political philsophers like John Stuart Mill explored with the Greatest Happiness Principle, the practice can be a real bummer for minority groups! And where do you draw the line in measuring the happiness affect? What makes us happy today might not in the long run!?

  • Em

    Happiness is a strange thing. The closest I’ve ever been to happy was a pretty boring period of my life.

    I admire the Dalai Lama a great deal, his happiness is contagious. When translate into Western terms, happiness is almost a sign of simple-mindedness. Exhibit A: Voltaire’s Candide.

    And what of the misery of passionate love with descents punctuated by moments of ecstasy? Who wants to give that up?

    The “pursuit” of happiness looks like a clever nuance and yet nothing is more stressful than the chase.

    No, I’ll stop worrying when I’m dead.

  • Dave Langmead

    Having just listened to Stuart Rose talking during the lunchtime interview at Lords, I was interested in his thoughts on maintenance of brand quality, whether it be the M&S brand, the Cricket brand or for that matter, the Government brand. He was referring to the “we’ve Boobed” campaign and I wonder how we get this message across to our very capable PM who does not seem to be able to judge the mood of the public and then to get the decision right? The actions of Stuart and the M&S Bra Buyer et al during the last 24 hours is a lesson to us all. By the way, I hear you managed to keep up with Ian Botham on your charity walk wheras Stuart Rose needed to break out into a trot!

  • Anna T

    What a great blog. I have always been impressed and slightly surprised by the line in the American Declaration of Independence that says we are all ‘endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. The pursuit of happiness is such an honest and uncynical thing to put in the declaration. It didn’t say the right to make money or to labour, but the right to be happy. It’s very easy to forget its our right and there’s nothing self-indulgent or naive about seeking happiness.

  • Alan Quinn

    Now even the BBC have jumped on the negative bandwagon, we’ve had 30-odd cases of Swine Flu but the beeb harp on about each case despite the fact that all are on the mend. Nothing positive about how well the NHS have handled it or how the government had stockpiles of Tamiflu at the ready.
    Regarding Dacre, he orders his henchmen (and women) to print lies from his ivory tower but never has the balls to go head to head with Paxman or Humphrys to justify his headlines.
    The Mail printed inaccurency after inaccurency over MMR despite the evidence from all over the world which said the vaccine was safe. Eventually the author of the dodgy autism linked report was found to be a liar. We now have pockets of measle outbreaks all over the UK because not enough people had their kids immunised. So the Mail will sensationalise Swine Flu but say nothing about the outbreak which it and the other harbinger of doom, the Express helped to foster.

  • gary Enefer

    Ghandi said ” be the change you want to see”.

    I have been reading”Be as you are”the teachings of the late Sri Ramana Maharshi and I am much happier.
    He is interviewed throughout the book and talks about the ‘self’ having all it needs to be happy and rathter than looking for answers or things we just nned to strip away a lot of what our ego tells us and revael the true self-
    ”Know then that true knowledge does not create a new being for you,it only removes your ignorant ignorance.Bliss is not added to your nature,it is merely revealed as your natural state,eternal and imperishable.
    Take care of yourself.Let the world take care of itself
    Q:It will hold good for the individual,but what of the rest?
    A:Do it first and then see if the question arises afterwards.The ego vanishes and the real Self alone remains.

    I also find keeping a journal makes me happy. there is something about writing it down. there is a saying that if you keep a journal , in later life it will keep you.

    Finally ‘Marion’ is travelling back from Africa – welcome home.

    best wishes
    gary enefer

  • CPW

    When did prosperity become ‘our national goal’? was there a referndum? is it common knowledge? have i missed something? or is that title, perhaps, a commonplace from a very common mind?

    unthinking nonesense. again.

  • Leo

    What a novel idea, Happiness is a fundamental principle for which personal decisions are often based. Just the thought of it generates endless ideas and debates. In a modern society which enjoys unprecedented levels of housing, health care and advanced levels of freedom. It is about time that we looked at the core or otherwise described as the heart of the problem. 🙂

  • Cate

    Our failure to accurately ‘measure’ true value is far more widespread and complex. See “Counting for Nothing” by Marilyn Waring, excellent ex NZ politicaian and academic.

    PS many, many people have been arguging for this for years. Whilst I think it is a good idea, it is far from an original one. The New Economics Foundation has a complete system for measuring ‘social return’ on financial investment, which takes this to a real and intelligent conclusion.

    PPS – Bhutanese not particularly free or equal. They are also expected to don national dress and women don’t have equal rights. Whose happiness is being measured?

  • Belinda

    Sorry, not normally in my nature to be rude, but really – Leo, a “novel idea”? Please, read some books. It is frightening how easily we collectively accept the received wisdom that economic growth is an endless good. Why? There is no logic to it. It is utterly unsustainable. There is plenty to go around, it just isn’t shared out fairly.

  • Marion

    True happiness? I think keep it simple. A walk in the park with someone we love, an hour buried in a good book; and for me today: a sausage sandwich after 4 months in an Ialamic country.

    Although a religious idea – giving also results in happiness. Today I was given an Easter Egg (saved from last month) – the happiness was abundant…

    Wishing joy to everyone on the blog 🙂