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Shelley A. Lewis

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Gross National Happiness: The Key to a More Inspired Future?

Posted: 04/17/11 12:48 PM ET

As we look forward to what we seek to accomplish at the beginning of this new decade, isn't now a good time to advocate a different type of framework for living, a new prosperity, one that is simply more evolved in its vision and can lead to a greater sense of subjective well-being?

In Bhutan, the emphasis on an economy that serves its culture based on spiritual values rather than material gain has long been the basis for the quality of life of the Bhutanese people.

His Majesty the King of Bhutan said in 2008 that a society that measures its wealth in terms of Gross National Happiness (or GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (or GDP) is one in which the happiness and well-being of all sentient beings are the ultimate purpose of governance. He believes that happiness is an indicator of good development and good society and that national development happens when material and spiritual development occur side by side, to complement and reinforce each other.

Like Matthieu Ricard, the meditator and scientist who helped us explore the nature of happiness in his book "Happiness: Life's Most Important Skill," the field of positive psychology, founded by Martin Seligman and originally coined "Authentic Happiness," endeavors to make sense of this often elusive but increasingly popular term by breaking it down into three separate lives: the pleasurable life, the engaged life and the meaningful life. The extraordinary rise of positive psychology is a testament to our global and unified quest to better understand what it takes to be happy.

In 2009 the "Positive Psychology" course at Harvard University was the most oversubscribed course for all first-semester students. When our country's brightest seek to measure quantitatively and understand elementally how to lead a happy life, then we begin to see the relevance of the tiny Himalayan kingdom's Gross National Happiness ideology. It shines a poignant light on the importance of considering a society's happiness in the planning documents that guide the economic development of any country.

Neoclassical economics have long quantified "happiness" through measurements in consumption and profits. Yet we now find ourselves in a "post-plenty" economy, one that lends itself to a new, less consumer-orientated mentality. The growing shift in people's orientation away from material gain and toward genuine happiness is a powerful indicator that the old way of measuring progress and wealth is no longer relevant.

Bhutan's attempt to define quality of life in more holistic and psychological terms than GDP can be of great inspiration in this moment to our culture, and certainly to our children, who, as the Dalai Lama commonly says, are "the world's most precious resource."

A study carried out at the University of British Columbia by Mark Holder, Ben Coleman and Judi Wallace suggests that to make children happier, we need to encourage them to develop a strong sense of personal worth, and that children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, high-quality relationships are happier.

Treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric that becomes more intimately ingrained in our economic worldview will go a long way toward creating a sustainable future for our children, not to mention updating our own framework for living toward a more harmonious way of being.

In a world where the systems that used to be stable are changing rapidly, the fact that we are designing meaningful, psychological and social indicators that can assess standards of living highlights the shifting policies and practices toward the pursuit of genuine happiness.

In 2009 President Nicholas Sarkozy honored this approach by announcing that France would start to measure well-being, as did the Office for National Statistics in the U.K. with its decision to start developing methods to measure "general well-being."

What we measure affects what we do, and GDP certainly doesn't measure those things that make life meaningful. It doesn't measure our sense of purpose at work, the quality of our relationships, the health of our children, or our commitment to institutions that add value to people's lives and thus their output.

Honoring the power of networks and communities and the values that sustain them will be increasingly important to our new economic prosperity as the nature of business changes and the value of entrepenurial endeavors helps reinvigorate the economy.

By changing policy at the national level, we change patterns of behavior toward those that reflect the true needs and wants of most people.

We have to thank Bhutan for its wisdom: Gross National Happiness seems like an idea whose time has arrived. For those of us who are willing to listen, though the rules may be slow to change, the journey is destined to be rewarding.