“Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product” declares a handwritten note on a piece of yellowish paper attached to the wall right above an old school chalkboard.
Each ‘i’ is dotted with a tiny heart, and the ‘a’ in ‘important’ is a corrected spelling mistake, betraying the foreign origin of a slogan translated into English to render its message universal. The curves and fragmentation of the pen strokes composing the ‘h’ of ‘Happiness’ similarly reveal a non-Western penmanship. They recall East Asian calligraphy, almost tracing the outline of a temple with blue ink.
This is a recurrent visual representation of the political conceptualisation of happiness that has made the whole world talk about Bhutan in recent years. The quote is by King Wangchuk, the King of Happiness, who reigned over this small, landlocked country in the Himalayas for more than 30 years. The handwriting appears to be influenced by the Tibetan alphabet and culture. And the school is a small educational facility that teaches traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts to socially and economically disadvantaged young people just outside Thimphu, the capital of this green, happy state.
King Wangchuk and Bhutanese institutions actively lobbied international political actors for decades to open global discussions on the importance of adopting a more holistic approach to wellbeing, going beyond simplistic analyses of economic prosperity. On the importance, that is, of adopting a measurement that takes into account the social health of a population in relation to its pragmatic aspirations, finally leaving aside the assumption that human beings are most content with life only when their economic power is growing.
“Being a small country, we do not have economic power,” King Wangchuk famously explained to the New York Times a couple of decades ago. “We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant international role, because of our small size and population, and because we are a landlocked country. The only factor we can fall back on is the unique culture we have.”
What the Bhutanese king was effectively saying was that not every country, region, city or community is exactly the same. A certain society could appear lacking when made to adhere to international standards of economic wellbeing, but this perspective could shift if the progress of the same community were to be observed realistically, by keeping in mind the local context, culture and characteristics that make it unique.
More recently, Enrique Peñalosa, the Colombian mayor who dedicated most of his career to improve the quality of life amongst Bogotà’s communities, similarly told Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City: “If we defined our success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as second- or third-rate societies - as a bunch of losers until the end of time.”
“So,” he further clarified, “with our limited resources, we have to invent other ways to measure success. This might mean that all kids have access to sports facilities, libraries, parks, schools, nurseries.” Access to collective spaces, that is: to common grounds, institutions and places that are developed and preserved in a way that every member of a community is provided with the stable foundations of a happy life.
If we defined success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as a bunch of losers until the end of time.
When in 2012 the United Nations finally proclaimed 20 March the International Day of Happiness, the austerity measures that had followed the big financial breakdown were starting to paralyse the geopolitical west, exacerbating wealth inequality, forcing the privatisation of public spaces and exposing the difficulties of continuing to conceptualise success as strict economic prosperity. Gross domestic product values plummeted. City administrations started selling off urban parks to private developers, wages across sectors that weren’t directly stimulating exponential growth were cut and governments put ancient monuments marking the history of humanity up for sale. Did this mean that financially lacking societies had to renounce everything, even their cultural identity, in the hectic rush to bring back constant economic growth?
The discourse that had traditionally animated Bhutan and Bogotà suddenly acquired global relevance, to the point that the UN officially recognised “the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the wellbeing of all peoples”. The reason behind it? The simple, newfound awareness that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” too.
It just so happens that happiness isn’t a completely hazy, subjective concept, at least from a political perspective. As happiness economist Layard demonstrated in his 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, it turns out that human relationships are actually the most important external factor affecting wellbeing.
Such an explicit institutional recognition of the need to develop a collective interpretation of prosperity, one that reunites people within supportive networks and communities, is still rather extraordinary in the west, where mainstream narratives have always focused on individual success rather than collective achievement. Here, wellbeing and human rights are often defined in terms of absolute individual aspirations rather than relative collective goals.
This works until every human being, community, city, region or country stands on this planet in perfect equality of power, influence and goals as its global counterparts. Lacking that, GDP measurements end up promoting fierce individual competition that stifles investment in common resources, overlooking contextual cultural elements of prime importance and reducing activities that don’t directly produce economic wealth to irrelevant enterprises.
For example, a group of people meeting weekly on a voluntary basis to develop an urban orchard that could feed the local community would escape GDP considerations. Why? Because it doesn’t directly accelerate economic growth. At the same time, can we really argue that strengthening food security and building a solidarity network within a neighbourhood doesn’t actually have an impact on the wellbeing of local residents?
And so the introduction of happiness in the UN agenda suddenly pushed collective goals into the global political discourse, encouraging communities to develop in a balanced manner, according to their context, habits and identity. Because as well as in terms of sustainable financial wellbeing, success in a Bhutanese community might be defined as the promotion of traditional arts and crafts among younger generations, in Bogotà as the development of safe green spaces for any kid to enjoy, in an Italian neighbourhood as the shared consumption of locally grown food and in a small town in north-west England as the preservation of a pottery kiln that was built during the Industrial Revolution.
Memory, identity, culture. Preservation that reproduces memory, identity and culture. Proliferation of spaces for public enjoyment. Access to food, to fresh air, to clean green spaces. All these elements enrich the traditional definition of wellbeing, creating liveable, resilient and solid communities. Because as the mayor of Bogotà passionately explains in Happy City: “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not be excluded.”
It isn’t a coincidence that the United Nations specifically declared 20 March the International Day of Happiness; it’s an equinox, when light and darkness are of equal length. Both become protagonists, balancing each other out and creating stability.
As global celebrations of happiness are approaching for the third time, consider slowing down for a minute this 20 March. Look around your community. What can you do to improve it? Perhaps talk to a stranger, or plant some flowers in your neighbour’s garden? Maybe organise a neighbourhood dinner in your local park, or visit a museum that preserves your cultural identity. Walk to go places. And don’t feel for a second that you’re not contributing to societal progress. Did you know that happiness makes people 12% more productive? It will then be up to you to decide how to reinvest what you gained in a sustainable manner, gradually building a collective, meaningful, happy place.
Photo credit: Mario Biondi, under CC licence.