It may seem obvious to say that everyone wants to be happy. Happiness, though, is not something that’s the same for all of us.

Do you measure your happiness by how much money’s in the bank? Perhaps it’s how much power you hold over others. Possibly it’s more altruistic, like how much good you can do for society. The answers will vary considerably, especially when cultural and personality differences are taken into account.

With all these different factors, can happiness even be measured at all? Recent studies suggest that not only is the pursuit of happiness increasingly recognized as important, but that happiness can be measured. Their findings are being taken more and more seriously, too—Yale’s most popular course ever had students signing up in the hundreds to study how to lead a happier life.

Gross National Happiness

Some governments are recognizing that the happiness of their citizens is not only measurable but that it can contribute to economic development. The old, narrow way of measuring a country’s success has always been Gross Domestic Product. More than one study has shown, though, that the countries with the highest GDP are not necessarily the ones with the happiest people. Other measures, which take happiness into account, are now appearing. In Bhutan, for example, they’ve actually put happiness into the constitution of the country, and measure Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead.

The culture of this tiny Himalayan kingdom, focused on the principles of Buddhism, greatly values compassion, contentment, and calmness. With that in mind, GNH uses nine different areas, broken down into a total of 33 separate indicators, to accurately measure the quality of people’s happiness. The nine areas focus on things like psychological well-being, good governance, ecological diversity, and living standards, and the government uses the data to help inform their policies.

For example, the people of Bhutan receive free basic education and healthcare, and much of their electricity is also free. More than half of the country is designated for national parks, and over 80% is natural forest. Bhutan is carbon-neutral and has a zero-carbon footprint. It works, and not just in making people happy—between 2012 and 2017, poverty there dropped from 12% to just over 8%. In 2023, Bhutan is set to leave the group that’s considered the world’s least-developed countries.

Happiness as a right

Such government intervention isn’t for everyone, though. Setting policy by GNH like in Bhutan means the government is directly responsible for citizens’ happiness. If you make happiness a right under the constitution, how do you guarantee that right when everybody’s idea of happiness is different? People who measure their happiness by how much money they have may feel that an economy based on those “softer” values limits their choices in living their life how they want. Others may feel their particular beliefs and way of life are under threat from freedoms and rights given to groups who don’t share their values.

There’s also the possibility that, in taking responsibility for people’s happiness, a government could take advantage of the extra powers it would need to guarantee that right and become more authoritarian. So-called “negative freedom,” the freedom that comes from not being interfered with, could be reduced.

Solutions to this problem that balance the need for economic development and the desire for happiness are emerging, and not just in Bhutan. India and the United Arab Emirates have both created ministries of happiness to balance economic growth with happier lifestyles for their people.

Away from governments, movements like the Social Progress Initiative, a DC-based global non-profit, are also having an impact. The SPI ranks nations on how they meet the social and environmental needs of their citizens, and not just how the economy is going.

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Punching above their weight

This means that countries that don’t feature highly on any GDP list but do look after well-being can rank very highly. Costa Rica, for example, ranks 79th in the world by GDP per head, but 29th in “Foundations of Wellbeing” and 26th in “Opportunity” on the Social Progress Index. Education for all from the nineteenth century, a welfare state from the 1940s, stopping military spending—Costa Rica is doing well because it has spent a long time building up social progress.

“Economic progress is generally a good thing,” says SPI head Michael Green. “It’s just not the whole story, and especially when it comes to issues like tolerance, it does seem that just by getting richer, we are not going to make much progress in making our societies tolerant. What we need are other solutions.”

Costa Rica and Bhutan are excellent examples of those other solutions. Giving human development equal priority with wealth creation can work—and is working.