John F. Helliwell recalls a meeting convened by the Prime Minister of Bhutan at the United Nations six years ago. Helliwell says the meeting led directly to the creation of the landmark initial World Happiness Report. And now this seminal document has brought together the available global data on national happiness and compiled related evidence from the emerging science of happiness.
Building on many other reviews of the science of well-being, the World Happiness Report buttressed support for understanding that the quality of people’s lives can be assessed by a variety of subjective well-being measures. Collectively, those metrics are referred to the reports as “happiness,” and the UK iteration of the idea launched a well-being initiative which included engagement from the highest levels of the political, administrative, and data-gathering pillars of government.
Central to the idea is the role of “life evaluations,” and they form a lynchpin role in the findings. They provide an umbrella measure used to state the importance of the supporting pillars for good lives.
The OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being served as the basis for the first report, and that data emphasized the need to measure life evaluations and understand positive and negative aspects of people’s more daily emotions and experiences.
“Eudaimonia,” a metric used to measure perceptions of life purpose (and other factors which result in better lives such as income, health, good jobs, family and friends, welcoming communities, good government, trust, and generosity) is a key cornerstone in support of specific policies with established credentials to support better lives.
How Does a Focus on Happiness Change Policy Making?
The three main answers to the question involve fundamentally changing the methods used to compare the results of alternative policies, using happiness as a policy objective to build cooperation across governments, and then improving the policies by placing them in a social context on the job, on the streets, in families, in schools, and in the institutions of government and politics.
One of those keys is understanding ways that mental illness can destroy happiness and ratchet up costs of treatment across the globe. But the good news is that interventions in cognitive behavioral therapy can fight mental illness and increase happiness. While the costs of such intervention are small (just 0.1% of global GDP), the relative gains in human happiness are enormous. It's remarkable that standard mental health interventions result in happiness. Each dollar of mental health expenditure leads directly to an astonishing additional 2.5 dollars of GDP.
While a sensible mental health effort is a pillar of the Global Happiness Policy, the addition pillars of Education, Work, Personal Happiness, Happy Cities in a Smart World and Well-Being and Happiness Metrics help complete the picture and
This speaks to the momentum of the Beyond GDP agenda, and the desire to give more central positions to several social and other factors that have been shown to support happiness. The range of examples featured—from passing laws about the use of alternative indicators in budget processes, through to the establishment of a government ministry focused on well-being—provide a rich variety of insights into the challenges and opportunities of giving well-being metrics a more central role in policy. Nonetheless, the large majority of these initiatives have emerged within the last few years, meaning that most are yet to become firmly established as tried and tested approaches. This makes it difficult, at this stage, to identify “best practice”—and it is not at all clear that just one model will emerge to fit all government contexts.
The key takeaway may well be that the chapters in this report illustrate the interlocking importance of measurement, innovation, experimentation, and analysis.
According to Helliwell and his team of authors, “a broad transformation of public thinking and top-level political will to support a widespread culture of local innovation” will be the result. But it will only arise from a culture of shared information, trust, collaboration, and a common vision.