Helen Clark: Keynote Speech at the Global Dialogue for Happiness “Where is Happiness on the Global Agenda?”

Feb 11, 2017

Paying more attention to happiness should be a component of our efforts to achieve human and sustainable development. Credit:UNDP

I am pleased to deliver this keynote speech on the topic: “Where is Happiness on the Global Agenda?” My thanks go to the Government of the United Arab Emirates for hosting us today.

I welcome the interest in looking at human happiness as a way of broadening the conversation about human progress and wellbeing.

While income is a crucial contributor to well-being, it is far from being everything. As the old saying goes, we do not live by bread alone. UNDP’s vision is for development which enables all people to live longer and healthier lives, be educated, have access to a decent standard of living, and have the freedom to choose to live lives which they value. This approach balances the material and non-material aspects of wellbeing.

Since 1990, UNDP has been reporting on human development, and using the Human Development Index to assess and compare countries’ progress. This composite index includes indicators for education and health alongside income per capita, in order to give a more balanced picture. This has helped broaden the conversation about development progress beyond what is sometimes described as the tyranny of the GDP indicator.

As an example, consider my own country, New Zealand.  Per capita gross national income in 2014 was the 32nd largest in the world, but on the Human Development Index, New Zealand is ranked ninth. While its GDP per capita is at the lower end of the OECD league tables, New Zealand scores highly on life expectancy at birth (14th highest in the world), and on expected years of schooling (2nd highest in the world).

Measuring happiness also promotes conversations about what the objective of development is. We need measures of both objective and subjective wellbeing to form a more complete understanding of how development ultimately affects people’s lives and wellbeing.

The 2013 World Happiness Report compared life satisfaction and human development, and concluded that they go hand in hand. Countries which scored more highly on the Human Development Index typically had higher average life satisfaction. Those who scored lower on the Human Development Index typically had lower average life satisfaction.

It is also interesting to explore the cases of those countries which didn’t follow this pattern. Why did their populations have much higher – or lower - life satisfaction that one would expect given their rankings on the Human Development Index? We may not know the answer yet, but these are important questions to ponder.

UNDP is not alone in looking for alternative measures of human development and wellbeing. 

•    Since the 1970s the Kingdom of Bhutan has championed gross national happiness as an alternative paradigm of progress;

•    the Government of the United Kingdom is now collecting several measures of happiness and subjective wellbeing to inform policy making; and

•    the pioneering work of countries like United Arab Emirates, the first to have a Minister for Happiness, may well inspire others to focus on the levels of happiness expressed by their citizens. 

But how might measuring and promoting happiness affect development policy?

People’s perceptions of the world around them do tend to drive their behavior, even when the available evidence may tell a different story. For example, perceptions may be that crime is high, but when compared to other like communities or countries it isn’t. So it’s important to measure perceptions, but also to collect firm data.

Understanding the drivers of subjective wellbeing can also reframe the ways in which governments work.

In Chile in 2012, UNDP released a national Human Development Report on subjective wellbeing. The report explored links between people’s happiness and Chile’s development goals, and it had an impact in unexpected ways.

The report argued that if subjective wellbeing was a development goal, then it would need to be addressed in public policy. The Ministry of Education responded by designing a new curriculum for Year 10 and Year 11 students which pays greater attention to pursuing personal wellbeing. This curriculum would inspire young Chileans to think not only about the kind of job they want, but also about the kind of life they want to lead and how to chart a path to get there.

Indeed a greater focus on happiness by governments could change policies in many ways. One obvious area for action is mental health, the state of which is an important driver of happiness.

A recent study, which pooled findings across surveys in a mix of high, middle, and low income countries, reported that on average eighteen per cent of adults - almost one in five - experienced a mental disorder within the previous year. The metric of disability-adjusted life years, which captures both what makes us sick and what kills us, suggests that the global burden of disease from mental and behavioral disorders is rising. Depression alone is now the second leading contributor globally to the number of years lived with disability.

Yet mental health, until recently, rarely featured in international development conversations. In many parts of the world, shame, stigma, and the absence of enough mental health care and diagnostics mean that there are few options for those who need services. More needs to be done for those living with severe mental illness who are marginalized, mistreated, discriminated against, and/or denied basic human rights. 

A word now on the SDGs, happiness and wellbeing.

The global development conversation will revolve around these goals and Agenda 2030 for the next thirteen years. 

The Agenda puts people at the centre of sustainable development as its ultimate beneficiaries, while seeking to balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, the social, and the environmental. The Agenda aims “to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.”

Consider just two specific areas of the SDGs: health and governance.  These are both fundamental to human development and to happiness.

On health, the Agenda calls for achieving universal health coverage and access to quality health care, in order to ensure that no one is left behind, and to promote physical and mental health and wellbeing. SDG 3 is dedicated to ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages.

All the SDGs touch on the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health. If poverty, hunger, poor housing, lack of access to education, toxic environments, and conflicts are overcome, health will obviously improve. If gender disparities in education, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights, and all forms of violence against women are overcome, the health of women and girls will improve. Better health should increase happiness. Better health will raise human development.

On governance, the 2030 Agenda is clear that achieving sustainable development requires peaceful and inclusive societies, justice for all, and effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Empowering people to have voice is both a means to – and an outcome of – human development. Freedom to make one’s own choices has been identified as one of six key drivers of happiness. 

So if we are serious about increasing human happiness, we must also be serious about achieving the SDGs.

To conclude.

When thinking of what development advances mean, many are still drawn instinctively towards measures of economic growth. But the quality of growth matters a lot – whether it is inclusive and sustainable has a major impact on human development and wellbeing. Paying more attention to happiness should be a component of our efforts to achieve human and sustainable development.
 

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