Why the government must focus on happiness

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“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” proclaimed Bhutanese King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan, in 1972. Whilst a simple, this statement completely revolutionised governmental policy. Traditionally, governments solely focused on the economy, believing a strong economy enables them to achieve their other policy objectives. This narrow mindset has ensured that short-term economic shifts are used to determine an administration’s success. The controversial proclamation by the Bhutanese king changed Bhutan’s metric of success from economics to happiness. The precedent set by Bhutan begs the question, why have others not followed in their footsteps, and should they?

What inspires contentment and joy has been heavily debated throughout history. In modern society, happiness is defined as a culmination of specific chemicals within the brain. But this objective, cold approach rejects the origin of those chemicals. Hence, philosophical interpretations of happiness seek to instil deeper meaning. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that “happiness arose due to activities which express and exude virtue”, a term he coined as “eudemonia”. This societal view of happiness envisions a world where individuals exude virtue and happiness unto others, thereby creating a virtuous cycle. However, this definition presents an idealised society without human flaws and fails to produce a method whereby to reach this social utopia. As a result, no government can follow Aristotle’s teachings to bring about increased happiness within a society.

Conversely, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that happiness could only arise because of idleness, claiming that “happiness was to lie in a boat, drifting aimlessly, feeling like a god”. Whilst Rousseau’s philosophy illustrates how people can be content whilst doing nothing, governments do not naively believe that the basic needs of its citizens can be met through idleness hence a system that maximises happiness must also prioritize the needs of the people. For one may be happy whilst doing nothing, they cannot be content doing nothing in the long run, without external support. As a result, this produces a method by which individuals may achieve happiness at the expense of others.

As a result, a government must ensure that both physical and psychological needs are met within their population, whilst ensuring society can still function effectively. The fundamental requirements of citizens, such as food, water and shelter must be achieved before further strides can be taken to maximise a nation’s happiness. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which prioritises an individuals needs and wants in order to achieve maximum happiness, acts as an effective scaffold from which policy objectives can be derived to maximise societal happiness. The rapid reworking of policy objectives to pursue greater happiness would lead to global economic, social and political realities.

So, what could change? The impact on individual nations will be determined by their level of development. Across much of the developing world, many citizens do not have their basic physiological needs met, due to a lack of clean, fresh water and food security. As a result, it is impossible for a third world nation to successfully achieve self-actualization for all its citizens without basic human needs, according to the Maslowian model. Globally, 30% of the population lack access to safe drinking water and this would have to be addressed before more extensive change in policy. The lack of physiological security prevents a significant portion of the population from attaining happiness as they cannot progress past the first Maslowian tier.

But does anything have to necessarily change within underdeveloped countries? Levels of absolute poverty, communicable diseases and starvation have dramatically fallen in recent years, across the globe. This is epitomised by how existing policies within sub-Saharan Africa have led malaria induced infant deaths to fall by 34% between 2010 and 2018. In developing nations, focusing on economic indicators has been proven to lift millions out of poverty. By aiding their citizens to have access to their most basic physiological needs, governments across the world can simultaneously grow their economies whilst bolstering the nation’s happiness. Hence, a complete overhaul of the system may not be necessary to dramatically improve short term happiness within developing countries. Instead, the status quo may have to be adapted but would not have to be completely abolished. Hence, the pursuit of happiness by developing countries would likely follow a similar path to that of Bhutan and require the implementation of a system like gross national happiness (GNH).

Whilst GNH does include unconventional domains such as psychological wellbeing and cultural diversity and resilience, it also includes more widespread, traditional indicators such as living standards and healthcare. As a result, Bhutan has managed to sustain some of the highest annual economic growth rates in the world, often exceeding 5%. This illustrates how, by pursuing happiness, developing nations can also stimulate high levels of economic growth. Consequently, they may not have to sacrifice traditional macroeconomic objectives to solely pursue happiness. This is particularly significant within the third world as it enables a gradual transition into a happiness-based economy. This gradual transition would prevent extensive backlash against the change with most people feeling little to no immediate change and entrenched economic elites continuing to see their wealth increase.

However, the story is dramatically different within developed countries. In most developed countries, the basic needs of most of their citizens are already met, guaranteed by an extensive welfare system. Whilst adjustments may be required to ensure that the social system meets all citizens’ physiological needs, generally, this system suffices. Moreover, many of the richest and most developed nations in the world achieve the second tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, for most citizens. Fig 3 illustrates the coverage of universal healthcare across the world. Universal healthcare constitutes a fundamental part of Maslow’s second tier as it ensures personal security and health, but the countries which have implemented universal healthcare illustrate how its provision is undeniably related to wealth. The notable exemption to this is the USA which, despite being one of the richest nations in the world does not provide universal healthcare.

The privatisation of healthcare in America installs fear in its citizens due to the risk of healthcare related bankruptcy. This is due to extensive profiteering from high profit margins which are fostered by an incentive for profit within American healthcare. Attempts at profit maximisation have resulted in the US having the highest hospital costs in the world at around £8100 per stay.  Costa Rica, a less developed nation, is ranked above America in happiness, perhaps due to having universal healthcare. Hence, one of the first changes of world governments switching to happiness, as their sole policy objective would be the global implementation of universal healthcare. Over time, this will likely result in universal healthcare being rolled out globally as less developed nations evolve to be able to make universal healthcare economically viable.

Despite this, most developed nations have already achieved the second Maslowian tier and will consequently seek to instil a sense of love and belonging in their communities. In order to achieve this, policies and social attitudes which discriminate against minorities will have to be shaken off. Making marginalised groups more included instils a societal sense of acceptance with the long-term goal of love and belonging. We are already seeing the hallmarks of this upheaval within highly developed countries, especially through the black lives matter movement. The new sense of acceptance and equality would drastically impact society; without prejudice, these marginalised communities will thrive and hence more strongly influence culture and society. However, rapid change may produce a short-term conservative backlash against the culture shock, yet this would eventually dissipate over time, similar to the “horror” of enabling equal gender rights during the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as the more modern “anti-LGBT” zones established in Poland under President Duda.

But on a broader scale, governments would likely increase funding for community centres and youth groups to install a sense of community. This increased funding would likely come from services such as the armed forces and police, provided it did not jeopardise the security needs of society, and hence regress onto the second tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To me, this is both necessary and dangerous, as by instilling a sense of community the government may inadvertently instil a tribalistic mentality entrenched through social identity theory. As a result, to maximise long term happiness, reform would have to be gradual to prevent nations from fracturing. However, it is difficult to extrapolate beyond the short-term, as the shift in policy is unprecedented within the developed world and the route to achieve it is vague.

In conclusion, whilst there are relatively few examples of governments shifting their policy towards happiness, it is not without precedent in the developing world, such as Bhutan, where impacts have been minimal. However, within the developed world, there would be extensive short term, rapid changes to the status quo within society, culture, legislature, and the economy. Despite this swift shift, the long-term consequences of such a change are almost impossible to predict. However, what is for certain in the long term is that society would not remain in its current form and the final society would be fairer, due to the upheaval of discriminatory policies and happier, due to the policies directly being more focused on the causes of happiness than our current society. This more modern, fair, and happy society which would be beneficial for all.