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Measuring happiness

Buddhist monks wait to take part in the marriage ceremony of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema at the Punakha Dzong, in Punakha, Bhutan, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. The 31 year-old reformist monarch of the small Himalayan Kingdom wed
Buddhist monks wait to take part in the marriage ceremony of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema at the Punakha Dzong, in Punakha, Bhutan, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. The 31 year-old reformist monarch of the small Himalayan Kingdom wed his commoner bride in a series ceremonies Thursday in the 17th century monastic fortress. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
Kevin Frayer, AP

The prime minister of Bhutan, Jigme Y. Thinley, made headlines this week as he visited the United Nations to extoll his country's state of happiness, which supposedly measures well in a new U.N. report. He argued that the world should measure nations by their level of happiness rather than by the more traditional metric having to with wealth, prosperity or Gross National Product.

Which, of course, one would expect from a nation where poverty is rampant and many barriers stand in the way of entrepreneurs and private-sector development.

Bhutan led Asia in the U.N. World Happiness Report. The world was led by Denmark, Norway and Finland. The report makes the point that happiness can be found independent of economic well-being, which is, of course, true, to an extent. Lots of people seem capable of finding balance and perspective under the most trying circumstances, while others seem to have everything and yet wallow in gloom.

However, examples of the opposite can be found, as well. Happiness is a personal thing, which makes it difficult to measure.

That hasn't stopped people from trying. The United Nations report is only the most recent attempt. Bhutan, for example, has developed a method for calculating happiness within its borders. An organization called the New Economics Foundation published a happiness rating a few years back that actually ranked Vietnam and Cuba in the top 10, with the United States coming in at 114. The authors insisted the report was more of a measurement of ecological efficiency supporting well-being. Apparently, countries lacking personal freedoms are more ecologically efficient, perhaps owing to their lack of industry. We doubt average folks in those places celebrate this.

In addition, the Legatum Institute in England has a "prosperity index" that also attempts to measure wealth in the context of happiness. In that one, the United States registered in the top 10 because of its economic opportunities, health care and other freedoms. The Scandinavian countries, once again, led the way.

Frankly, all these measures seem a bit ludicrous and, in many respects, driven by not-so-hidden agendas. Relative happiness is difficult to measure simply because most people have not lived in enough countries to know whether they would be happier elsewhere. A Vietnamese peasant may be perfectly happy but unaware that he or she would feel more fulfilled in a nation that provided greater opportunities to be educated, to prosper and to help others.

The United Nations would be better served by promoting economic and political freedom, as well as basic human rights. It would serve the world better by emphasizing religious liberty, given the many other studies that link religious observance with a happy life. As the Founders of this nation understood, the "pursuit of happiness" is a personal journey that can be accomplished best alongside life and liberty, but it is not guaranteed simply by virtue of those things.

Bhutan, by the way, is a nation with some promise. The latest Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation, notes that it has the foundations of economic freedom, with relatively little corruption. Its people, however, have little freedom to conduct business or trade as they please. Prime Minister Thinley may not find that his people necessarily would be happier with these things, but we're fairly certain his people would like to find out.