Gross National Happiness

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Image by Marcus Vegas, licensed under Creative Commons.

John de Graaf, filmmaker, co-author ofAffluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemicand Executive Director of Take Back Your Time (, will be filing dispatches next week from the International Gross National Happiness Conference. We’ve asked him to explain what the conference is and why he’s going.

At the  5th International Gross National Happiness Conference, being held this weekend at Iguassu Falls, Brazil, several hundred people from around the world will gather to discuss the latest in “Happiness Science” research and practical applications through policy and cultural changes currently being adopted in several countries.  The first of these conferences was held in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom, whose monarch once proclaimed that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”  I attended the second conference, in Nova Scotia, along with representatives from 46 nations.  There has been a boom in happiness studies recently, stirred by “positive” psychologists and sociologists, who sense that their disciplines have focused far too greatly on neuroses and social problems and not enough on what kind of activities and policies actually contribute to happier societies, and by economists who believe GDP is too limited a tool to measure the success of societies. 

Not surprisingly, they have found that beyond a certain minimum level of income, greater happiness comes from strong and plentiful human connections, a sense of control over one’s life and employment, meaningful work, good health, basic economic security, trust in others and in government, and other opportunities less directly connected with monetary remuneration.  Studies of life satisfaction around the world are now enhanced by regular polling in many countries using a broad range of questions, and have led to consistent findings in recent years that the highest levels of satisfaction are found in such northern European countries as Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden–countries with a strong sense of social solidarity and attention to work-life balance, small income gaps, and–contrary to the thinking of American conservatives–high taxation rates.  These studies find that many relatively income-poor nations, such as Costa Rica and Colombia, also have high rates of life satisfaction, leading one group of British researchers to establish a “Happy Planet Index,” dividing life satisfaction scores by ecological footprints.  They find that many so-called developing countries actually rank at the top of their index.

My own interest in these issues lies at the intersection between work (or overwork), health and happiness.  At the Gross National Happiness conference, I will make the case that shorter working hours–especially in rich countries–are key to happiness, health and long-term sustainability.  Indeed, it is clear that the United States, with among the longest working hours in the industrial world, scores far below northern European nations in calculations of leisure time, longevity and overall health, while having an ecological footprint nearly twice as large–and these facts can be seen to be clearly related.

Two days ago, in preparation for my trip to Brazil, I watched the movie, The Mission, which I hadn’t seen since its release in 1986.  I watched it for its remarkable photography of the magnificent Iguassu Falls, the largest waterfall in the world.  The film is a story about Jesuit missionaries in South America, who established remarkable communities among the Guarani Indians, protecting them from enslavement by Spanish and Portuguese authorities from the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, when those authorities sent soldiers to destroy the missions. 

Curious about the real story, I found an old book, A Vanished Arcadiaavailable free online.  Written by Robert Cunninghame Graham in 1900, it is a thorough look at these Jesuit communities, which actually practiced a form of Christian communism.  Thousands of Guarani lived in these mission communities and shared in the entire product of their agricultural and industrial labor.  Though infused with Jesuit ideology and strong paternalistic leadership from the priests who led them, the communities were egalitarian and by all accounts, happy, places which the Guarani joined voluntarily and without  pressure.  They were condemned by secular leaders who saw the Indians as both potential slaves and indentured servants, and criticized the Jesuits for putting the happiness of the Guarani above their productive usefulness to Spain and Portugal.

So even then, and in the same region as the upcoming Gross National Happiness conference, the conflict between production for its own sake (GDP) and happiness (GNP) was evident.  Of course, it led to the demise of the Jesuit communities, whose mission ruins still dot parts of southern Brazil, northern Argentina and southern Paraguay, where they have been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

The upcoming conference features such luminaries as Leonardo Boff, a modern priest and leader of Latin America’s Liberation Theology movement, Marina Silva, Brazil’s former environment minister and economist John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers.  I can hardly wait to get there.

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