The International Language of Happiness

At a United Nations conference this week, world leaders look beyond economic output to measure the progress and well-being of a nation.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Thinley, presided over the United Nations (U.N.) conference in a beautiful gold and ruby striped gho. Thinley is a small man with a broad smile. As he spoke, his demeanor was calm and welcoming, even if his words were not.
“Mankind is like a meteor, blazing toward self-immolation along with all other life forms,” he said, gazing evenly at the rapt crowd.
It’s not the typical stuff of U.N. meetings, but then the “High Level Meeting on Happiness and Wellbeing” hosted by the government of Bhutan on Monday was not your typical U.N. meeting. Sure, Excellencies were graciously thanked. Polite bows were executed. Headsets worn. But the dignitary-studded crowd of more than 600 also heard from experts on meditation, and were invited to contemplate their oneness with the universe. This may have been the only U.N. conference where several speakers referenced both Buddha and Aristotle.
This first ever meeting of its kind and caliber was organized with a specific goal: to devise a new global paradigm for assessing the progress of a country—one that incorporates human well-being and happiness. The current idea might be reduced, as it often was throughout the day, to the gross domestic product (GDP), the almost 80-year-old economic measure that represents the total market value of all the goods and services a country makes. GDP doesn’t reflect a number of other critical factors, such as social connections, whether people feel safe, how much time they have to spend with their families and friends, or the likelihood that the growth being measured will result in a paralyzing economic crisis sometime soon. Plus, since GDP is an average, it can, as it has in the United States, go up even as most individuals’ incomes go down. All of which helps explain how so many people in the world—and in this country—can be miserable even as we produce more and more.