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The 5th International Gross National Happiness Conference


by John de Graaf

Just before Thanksgiving, I attended the 5th International Gross National Happiness Conference, held at Iguassu Falls, Brazil. Several hundred people from around the world gathered 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.

As many readers are probably aware, 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 conference, I made the case (well-received by the audience) 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.

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 early-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 ARCADIA, available 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 Gross National Happiness conference, the conflict between production for its own sake (GDP) and happiness (GNH) 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.

My first confirmation of the value of the conference’s goals came even before I got to Brazil. On the flight from Seattle to Houston, I ended up seated next to a wonderful young woman, an actress, singer and social rebel from Beirut, Lebanon named Milia Ayache. She was on her way from Vancouver, where she’d been visiting her grandmother, to enjoy Thanksgiving with other relatives in Texas.

Milia had learned what matters in life from her experiences during bombing raids in Beirut. When Hezbollah or Israeli bombs fell on her city, her middle-class family fled their home for nearby mountains. She remembered her mother telling her she had only minutes to pack a small suitcase. What would she take, knowing that her home might be only rubble when she returned? In such times, it was clear what mattered most—not expensive electronic gadgets, but a few clothes and things of sentimental value, like photographs, connections to the people in her life. It is an understanding clear to the world’s “happiness” researchers—friends and family matter more than stuff.


Held in an enormous hotel in the southern Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu, the 5th International Gross National Happiness conference began with a talk from an acknowledged world expert in the field, economics professor John Helliwell, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He led the entire audience of 700 people in rousing, if not always on-key, English and Portuguese versions of the “happiness theme song,” an old favorite I remembered from childhood:

The more we get together, together, together,

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.

For your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends.

The more we get together the happier we’ll be.

Social connection, Helliwell stressed is a key to happiness, but as a worldwide Gallup Poll of 140 countries over three years reveals, quite a number of other factors also matter more than our economic measure of well-being, the Gross Domestic Product. Income is not irrelevant—the highest scores for happiness are found in wealthier countries. Freedom from hunger and physical insecurity is a must. But after moderate levels of comfort and security are met, other factors assert themselves.

Among them are a sense of control over one’s life, government as free as possible from corruption, friends and relatives one can count on, trust in one’s neighbors, generosity (a key question in the poll is “Have you donated to charity this year?”), freedom (another question: “Do you have the freedom to do what you choose in life?”—consistently, contrary to what Americans might expect, the highest scores on this question come in precisely the Scandinavian countries we often mock as “nanny states”).

Religion is definitely a plus for individuals, but probably because it helps build social connections. Countries with the most religious fervor, like the United States, don’t necessarily rank near the top in life satisfaction. The consistent happiness champion? Denmark--with Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden not far behind.

Jon Hall, an Englishman now with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, followed Dr. Helliwell with encouraging news. The OECD (made up of about thirty of the world’s richest nations) takes happiness studies increasingly seriously. It is looking for a whole new set of indicators on which to judge the progress of member countries. Its new “Global Project” aims at collecting so-called “best practices”—social and economic policies that are clearly shown to increase life satisfaction.

Hall cited other good news: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, only two years ago the champion of economic growth and American-style economics, is now singing a very different tune. He recently organized a commission led by Nobel Prize economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. The commission called for a focus on indicators such as health, family cohesion and leisure time instead of the current emphasis on GDP.

A new European Commission is called “GDP and Beyond,” and OECD’s recent World Forum in Pusan, South Korea, brought together two thousand researchers and activists to consider policies built on measures of life satisfaction, rather than economic growth. “It really is a movement now,” Hall declared. The point is to find ways that can clearly tell us whether people are satisfied or suffering. “Statistics,” as they are now, Hall suggested, “are people with their tears washed away.”


A bit groggy from jet lag the next morning, I worried I might fall asleep during the first presentation. But there was nothing to fear; instead, the content energized me. The speaker was Karma Ura, director of the Center for Bhutan Studies, one of about a dozen Bhutanese in attendance at the conference. The tiny landlocked Himalayan country of Bhutan has been at the Center of Gross National Happiness (or GNH) studies since 1972, when its king proclaimed that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

Since then, Bhutan has enshrined the concept in its constitution and looked for ways to operationalize it and measure it. Karma Ura explained that, over time, the Bhutanese have identified nine aspects that factor into analyses of happiness. They include: psychological well-being; good health; time use (work-life balance); community vitality; education; cultural preservation; environmental protection; good governance; and financial security.

They have developed questionnaires by which they assess life satisfaction in each of these areas and which they use in regular polls of the Bhutanese people. Included are such questions as: How safe do you feel from human harm? Rarely? Usually? Always? Bhutan uses the results of its indicator questionnaires to guide public policy. Each decision is based on assurance that it will not lower—and should raise—overall life satisfaction. One such analysis led Bhutan’s government to decide not to join the World Trade Organization.

I sat at a table with two young Brazilian environmentalists, and a middle-aged Bhutanese man named Tshewang Tandin. Soft-spoken, but open and informal, Tshewang told us that their polls found that Gross National Happiness was much higher in the Bhutanese countryside, despite its materially poor life, than in the capital of Thimphu, where westernization and globalization were changing daily life at an alarming rate. Later the same day, he gave me a book published in Bhutan and written by his 12-year old daughter. Titled COMING HOME, it is the story of a 15-year old Bhutanese girl and her efforts to fit in to the newly-westernized life of Thimphu’s children. For me, the book was a shocker.

A change in the names and one might have heard the same story in any American suburb: children seeking popularity in school by becoming part of the in-clique of wealthier girls; cell phones and terse, often-nasty text messages; hazing of the less attractive or popular children; competition for clothes and shoes with western brand names; most disturbingly, eagerness to play such disturbing and violent video games as “Grand Theft Auto.” Even the language mirrored American slang: “As soon as I walked into the room I saw him. I knew I was dead meat.”

I was saddened, but in another sense, reassured. I’d believed Bhutan was too different from the United States for its research on happiness to apply much to us. Yet clearly, the human struggle between an authentic life rich in family and friendships and a media-mediated life revering material possessions and outward image, is not confined to the West.
I was further surprised to find that, for the Bhutanese, one of the lowest polling scores comes on the issue of “time use,” defined more simply as work-life balance. Even in Bhutan, work is expanding with consumption to fill all the moments of life.

I talked with Susan Andrews, a vivacious American with a Harvard Ph.D., who moved to Brazil in 1992 and now runs Visao Futuro, a model “eco-village” and environmental learning center near Sao Paulo. Clearly a popular leader in Brazil, with great respect from government, corporations and activists alike, Andrews had organized the conference and invited me to speak. She told me that the time crunch is also a powerful limit to GNH in Brazil, where Natura, a natural cosmetics company that was one of the sponsors of the conference, polled its own workers using the Bhutanese model. While majorities reported overall satisfaction in every other area, only 30% felt positive about their work-life balance.

Susan Andrews told conference attendees that standardized GNH questionnaires, developed by Dr. Michael Pennock and other researchers in Victoria, British Columbia, would soon be available for use around the world. Pennock himself explained that the questionnaires had already been used in Victoria by a group called the Victoria, BC Happiness Index Partners. The same results regarding time use prevailed: while 76% of Victoria residents were satisfied with their overall quality of life, only 45% felt the same toward their work-life balance.

Bhutan’s research, frameworks and results can be found at its excellent Web site: While the country is among the world’s poorest materially, the Bhutanese have quite a high level of GNH, especially in the countryside, and especially when compared to the resources they consume. Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in London explained his measurement of international well-being, the Happy Planet Index. HPI divides two indicators—average life satisfaction and life expectancy—by a third—ecological footprint, to see how efficiently countries are using natural resources to create a high quality of life.

Bhutan, with a relatively low life expectancy of 66 years, relatively high life satisfaction and one of the smallest ecological footprints in the world, ranks 13th overall, a highly respectable showing. Costa Rica is number One. Brazil ranks 9th, highest among large countries, while the United States is a dismal 111th. Imagine Americans chanting “We’re number One (pause) One (pause) One…”

Nonetheless, Americans will not quickly buy HPI, nor be willing to sacrifice their material comforts anytime soon, just to reduce our ecological footprint. Still, Bhutan’s ideas about measuring GNH as well as GDP, can, and should, be taken seriously here as well.


The 5th International Gross National Happiness Conference offered an eclectic mix of speakers, ranging from business executives and government leaders to the occasional Marxist firebrand, including a Bolivian woman who, as best I could tell from her Spanish since there was no English translation of her talk, extolled the socialist virtues of Bolivia’s president Evo Morales for a full forty-five minutes, refusing to surrender the microphone even though speakers had been asked to hold to a 20-minute time limit. The Brazilians around me were plainly disgusted by her behavior even if they sympathized with her Leftist politics.

Yet for the most part, the talks were eye-opening and informative and the discussion at my table the last morning was engaging and worth waiting for. As with all conferences, perhaps the best outcomes were wide-ranging connections. I was delighted to share informal moments with Thai activists, Burmese journalists, a dynamic professor of education from Auckland, New Zealand, a Polish economist, several Brazilian environmentalists and a small group of Americans, who are planning GNH conferences in the U.S. next year, a regional gathering in Vermont in June and an international meeting about getting the idea of Gross National Happiness into education in Jackson, Wyoming next October. I plan to stay involved with these groups and update their progress.

One thing stood out for me throughout the conference: Brazil is definitely a place where this message resonates. One has a different sense about the future in Brazil. Unlike the gloom and anxiety that permeates the United States, and probably many nations of the industrial North, Brazil is awash in hope. The Brazilian economy is weathering the current economic storm remarkably well. The policies of President Lula da Silva are starting to reduce enormous income gaps and there is a passion about sustainability unseen in the U.S. The Brazilians are cheerful, warm and welcoming and the conference reflected their love of the colorful and flamboyant. Each session, moderated by a funny and effusive MC named “Wellington” who dressed as a clown, began with dancing, exercise and song. Not your typical academic forum by a long shot.

The last days of the conference had time for sightseeing built in, including a visit to a nature reserve near Itaipu Dam, the world’s largest hydro-electric project, and a trip to the incomparable Iguassu Falls. Nothing I had seen, neither photos on the Web nor the falls full-screen as captured in the movie, THE MISSION, prepared me for the immensity and power of the real thing. When, late in her life, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Iguassu, her only comment was “poor Niagara.” The falls plunge 300 feet, sometimes in one leap, in other places, over two levels. A walk down a lush subtropical trail, with colorful toucans in the treetops, leads to the base of an enormous section of the falls, where, with a deafening roar, water plunges 150 feet onto a ledge. One crosses the ledge on a narrow catwalk, drenched in the refreshing mist of the falls, and overlooking another plunge of a hundred feet or more.

Where the catwalk ends, a view opens of the Garganta do Diabo, or Devil’s Throat, a narrow place with water plunging hundreds of feet on all sides into a churning maelstrom below. On and on, the falls stretch towards the horizon, several kilometers in total length, dozens of enormous cascades separated by basalt walls green with foliage. A short elevator ride from this point takes one above the upper falls, for grander views of the entire scene and far into Argentina beyond.

Just before I left for a flight back to Seattle, I again ran into Susan Andrews, the organizer of the conference. A remarkable woman with an obvious inner grace and powerful charisma, Susan seemed tired from the long effort to create so large and international a gathering, and from the need to satisfy differing political and social interests. But she spoke of her eagerness to see the Gross National Happiness idea move forward around the world, and urged me—and fellow Seattleite Vicki Robin, also a conference speaker—to develop our own Pacific Northwest gathering and spread the word.

I’m eager to get to work to do just that.

---John de Graaf, filmmaker, co-author of AFFLUENZA: THE ALL-CONSUMING EPIDEMIC and Executive Director of Take Back Your Time.

Photo Credit by s.o.f.t.

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