The International Day of Happiness

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The United Nations General Assembly adopted March 20 as the International Day of Happiness in 2012. March 20 was chosen to coincide with the spring equinox, which signifies a passage of seasons noted and celebrated by people all around the world. The International Day of Happiness has been celebrated since 2013 not just by member nations of the United Nations but also by many NGOs and other civic and community groups.

Long before the United Nations adopted the International Day of Happiness, an important initiative was taken by Bhutan, a small country sandwiched between China and India, back in the 1970s to embark on a new social initiative away from the materialistic conception of social progress and welfare measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), replacing it with a new concept called Gross National Happiness (GNH). Coined by Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1974, the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan from 1972 till 2006, the promotion of Gross National Happiness has since been incorporated into the Constitution of Bhutan, a parliamentary democracy since 2008. As a concept, Gross National Happiness consists of information on nine domains: good governance, psychological well-being, balanced time-use, community vitality, health, education, cultural diversity, living standards, and ecological diversity.

Considering that it recognizes the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal, it was natural that the United Nations would pick up the idea of conceiving social progress and welfare broadly over and beyond material progress as measured by GDP. The decision to adopt the International Day of Happiness, followed by the publication of annual “World Happiness Report,” was a clear recognition on the part of the United Nations that all nations should be concerned with happiness and well-being of all peoples while raising living standards and promoting sustainable development.

The World Happiness Report by the United Nations ranks nations according to an index based on information on six key factors: income, freedom, trust, life expectancy, social support, and generosity. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Switzerland have consistently done well since the first report, with Finland coming at the top in the 2018 report. While the idea of promoting happiness and well-being is commendable, what seems to be forgotten is that the very idea of ranking nations according to some index is an outstanding example of the linear mode of thinking, which reflects the notion of rationality as developed and promoted in the evolution of Western civilization. In fact, the idea that there is progress in human history in the form of increasing material standards of living was a product of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Nations are complex systems as systems go. Hence, the idea of representing the state of a nation just by a single index, whatever it may be and however it may be measured, must be said to be too simplistic to capture the reality of nations as complex systems. Bhutan may indeed be a land of happiness, but how do we reconcile that characterization with the fact that about 12 percent of its population fall below the poverty line, finding it difficult to send their children to schools and receive proper health care, and with the recent problem of youth unemployment and substance abuse? What is needed is a composite picture of how nations are doing as systems, which cannot be reduced to a single index.

Aside from the problem of measurement, there is further problem with the idea of representing happiness of nations by some kind of index. What is most serious is its neglect of the spiritual aspect of happiness taught, for example, in Buddhism. Is not happiness something that we nourish through our daily practice, cultivating understanding and love not just for ourselves but also for those around us? If there is one thing that is clear, it is that happiness is not something that we celebrate once a year on the International Day of Happiness.