What makes us happy? In America, we’ve been asking this question ever since 1776, the year we declared for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Back then, Americans seeking more happiness had little more than guesswork to go by. Now we have help: a new science of happiness with years of research findings behind it.
The documentary filmmaker and author John de Graaf has done as much as any American to share what this science has to offer. De Graaf, co-founder of The Happiness Initiative, recently returned from Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation that has become the first society on Earth to make the pursuit of happiness its prime driver of public policy.
The Bhutanese, de Graaf tells me, are directly challenging our conventional political wisdom on happiness. To become happier, this standard wisdom holds, we just need to grow economically. Higher GDPs will bring us higher levels of “life satisfaction” and “subjective well-being.”
In fact, beyond a certain level of Gross Domestic Product — about Portugal’s current GDP — we actually have no research backing up the notion that countries grow happier as they become richer.
“We do have evidence that other factors — reduced stress and greater leisure time, good health and social connections — do contribute to greater happiness,” de Graaf adds. “And so does the opportunity to do meaningful work and live in a democratic society that fosters trust and personal safety, with access to education, arts, culture, and nature.”
Which societies rank highest on factors like these? The world’s most equal nations. These societies discourage the flaunting of wealth and encourage social connectivity.
In our society, nothing signals status and success more than personal wealth, and people labor ever longer hours to grab as much of it as they can. But chasing after fortune undercuts our ability to take the satisfaction that comes from leisure time, purposeful work, and all the other quality-of-life dimensions so critical to happiness.
This preoccupation with accumulating evermore is also endangering our environment. Americans are already exhausting the world’s resources more rapidly than they can naturally replenish. If everyone on Earth lived the American consumer lifestyle, the Global Footprint Network details, we’d need five planets to provide the resources and find enough room to absorb all our industrial and consumer waste.
“We simply cannot grow on like this,” says de Graaf, who makes this case in books like his co-authored What’s the Economy For, Anyway? “We need to find a different approach to well-being for the sake of the future.”
In Bhutan, policymakers are exploring different approaches. They’re working to nurture those dimensions of our daily lives that make us happier. The nation, for instance, ensures all workers a month of annual vacation. Small touches matter for happiness, too. In winter, workdays run from 9 to 4 to keep workers from having to travel to and from work in darkness.
The Bhutanese are now asking the United Nations to explore new progress markers — linked to sustainable well-being and happiness that can replace traditional GDP measures. In June of 2014, the young king of Bhutan will travel to the United States to help make that case.
Will anybody listen? De Graaf certainly hopes so — and thinks a little basketball game might help. Turns out that Bhutan’s 33-year-old king plays a mean game of hoops, among the best in his country. A game on the White House court with the king and President Barack Obama, says de Graaf, just might attract some global media attention.
“Add a few celebrities and NBA stars to the game,” he dreams, “and you could have an international event of great import, an event that could get people talking about measuring ‘equitable and sustainable well-being’ instead of GDP.”
And that would be something to truly get happy about.
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