International Day of Happiness: Towards a World Where Human Well-Being Takes Center Stage

Written by Lukia Nomikos, Social Value International’s Membership Coordinator

Happiness is the thing we want the most for the people we love the most and it should be the fundamental thing we’re aiming for together as a society. 

Dr Mark Williamson, Co-Founder and Director of Action for Happiness

When you ask people what they want most in life, a very common answer is “I just want myself and my loved ones to be happy.” Happiness is a feeling and therefore subjective but it is clear that with it, we tend to mean more than just a fleeting pleasurable emotion. Usually what we mean with it is “a deep[er] sense of flourishing” – a life of meaning, fulfilment, and stability.

Happiness is not only desirable on a personal level, it is also valuable to society as a whole. Happier people are more likely to make a positive contribution to society, have a greater respect for law and order, are less likely to engage in risky behaviour, are healthier, and live longer.

Given that happiness seems to be something that most people ultimately want in life, and its benefits to society, one would expect it to be a central consideration in policy-making and increased human well-being to be a key indicator of progress. Instead, for too long, our understanding of development has been limited to the narrow concept of economic growth. Although a strictly economic tool, GDP per capita continues to be our main metric for measuring well-being. It is “used to make assumptions on standards of living within [a] country, with the idea that the higher the per capita amount, the better the standards are.”

However, as a growing body of research suggests, a higher GDP does not necessarily translate into quality changes in standards of living or greater happiness among citizens. All it tends to be is an indication of the economic health of a country, which does not always go hand in hand with human well-being.

More and more people, including policymakers and leaders, are starting to recognise that “progress should be about increasing human happiness and well-being, not just growing the economy” and are therefore calling for decision-making to go beyond GDP. Economic growth should no longer be treated as a proxy for happiness – governments should instead adopt policies specifically designed to foster and support human well-being. In a world beset with rising inequality, wide-scale environmental degradation, fragile financial systems, and increasing mental health problems, this shift in attitudes should come as no surprise and is desperately needed – particularly in a post-Covid world.

Indeed, in 2011, the UN General Assembly, adopted a resolution which recognised the pursuit of happiness as a “fundamental human goal” and called for a more holistic approach to public policy, which gives greater priority to happiness. It also acknowledged that  “the GDP indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.” Bhutan famously rejected GDP entirely already back in 1971 and became the first country to test a Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index in 2008. Other countries have – albeit slowly – followed suit, with New Zealand being the latest to adopt the Happiness Index metric in 2019, unveiling its world-first well-being budget. 

One of the main goals of the social value movement is to increase well-being for all. Social Value International and our global community have long advocated for a broader definition of value that goes beyond a limited economic concept of value. Economic tools to measure progress, such as GDP, are useful to some extent but if we truly want to maximise human happiness and well-being, we need to change the way society accounts for value. Key decisions about resources and policies need to go beyond GDP and place higher importance on the effects on people and the environment. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on and, in many ways, exacerbated the social challenges we face today. In addition, it has made clear that perhaps we, as a society, have got our priorities wrong by equating progress with financial prosperity and by sidelining social and environmental considerations. However, these difficult times also have the potential to bring forth new ways of thinking and thus pave the way for a world where human happiness and well-being take center stage. 

The International Day of Happiness is observed every year on 20 March. It is a day to celebrate happiness and acknowledge its place among public policy objectives on the global agenda. The theme for this year’s International Day of Happiness is ‘Keep Calm. Stay Wise. Be Kind’ – in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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