Measuring Development by Happiness

Day in and day out, more often than not our life follows the same pattern albeit with hiccups along the way. At least for myself and many other Average Joes out there, the equation of life is as direct as “you win some, and you lose some”. Our daily routine demands us to repeat the cycle of labour to sustain our expectations on how life should be.

It is not uncommon for some to then self-reflect and ask ourselves: is this what the value of our life and education is for? When we are not spending time with our loved ones, we would at best self-gratify ourselves, be it through activities of passion, humanitarian work, religious devotion or with materialswhich is necessary as elixir of life to compensate for this sedate feeling of pretentiousness.

By the end of the day, essentially human beings’ desire is just to be happy, or at least to be contented with life. The question to ask then is: what does happiness of life mean to a day-to-day citizen? In a larger context of discussion, what is the duty of governments to cater to this expectation of happiness that has been entrusted upon them by the people who have voted their politicians in?

Our infatuation to define how life should be based on quantifiable aspects, such as the GDP, or at simpler levelby how much money we have in our bank account, or how high of social and corporate position we can reachalmost always does not translate to happiness of life beyond the superficiality of things.

One may think that this discussion is at best philosophical, but this idea of life enrichment has actually been adopted by the state of Bhutan in 1971 to reject GDP as the only way to measure progress. Bhutan has championed a new approach to development which measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH); which puts the well-being of its citizens in spiritual, physical, social and environmental health, and the natural environment, as its government’s priority.

It took 40 yearsfour long decadesfor the world community to eventually consider and adopt this idea, with its first during the United Nations Climate Change conference in Doha. Realising that the world is now in a time-bomb of environmental and socio-economic self-destruction, the UN and 68 other countries had officially endorsed Bhutan’s call for a holistic approach to development. Following this high-level endorsement, a UN Panel has been established to replicate this method across the globe.


Bhutan; the Last Shangri-La of the Himalaya?

Many human rights activists had since argued that Bhutan is not exactly the example of the mythical Shangri-la that has eluded world citizens since time immemorial, mainly for its government’s past treatment towards the minority Nepali-origin citizens. Close to 100,000 of them were expelled from Bhutan to fulfill the King’s vision to have a “One Nation, One People” Bhutan; after tightening its citizenship laws in the mid-1980s.

A Singaporean Minister, Khaw Boon Wan, had also the said the samealthough his view was more from the perspective of an economic and geo-political interest. Although the Bhutanese people are happy by their living standard, it does not mean that the responsibility of the government ends there. During his visit to Bhutan, he was shocked to see thatthe very same people who are said to be happy with their lifeare bereft of proper clothings, medical supplies, and emergency ambulance access to the hospitals.

I agree that there is truth in what was said.

Happiness cannot be understood in the isolation of self-contentment. We are no more discussing issues in the event of globalisation for our world is already globalised. There has to be a balance between overall growth of the country, the well-being of its citizens, and its involvement with the world communitywhich also means that each country has to live up to the universal standard of quality-living; such as the protection of human rights, economic equity (admittedly, economic equality is an impossibility), rule of law, and environmental protection, among others.


I do not have to elaborate in detail that the Scandinavian countries are best-known for the general well-being of their people, who are taken care of from top-to-bottom.

Sweden’s happiness approach, for example, includes additional measures to achieve global goals; such as the imposition of high taxes on carbon emissions, providing safe haven for refugees and political asylum, and an extensive welfare system that includes the interest of non-citizens. Sweden also provides high-quality free education up to the tertiary level, excellent affordable healthcare services, and a working environment that emphasises on work-life-balanceso much so that paternal and maternal leave are legal rights, in addition to 33 days of annual leaves guaranteed by the employees.

Comparing that to my case of only 14 days of annual leave in Malaysia, it begs a question if I am actually living an enriching and happy life.

Sounds too good to be true, eh?

The usual context that is backdrop against this Scandinavian happiness is none other than its high costs, which is trickled-down to high cost of living, a flat income tax rate and a top marginal tax rate for citizens who earn more than the average income in Swedenat 56.9%. From the first glimpse of the figures, the political way looking at it is none other than it being expensive and unsustainable.

When discussed as a possibility for other countries to emulate, the favorite notion against such measures is that it would hinder productivity and can potentially bankrupt the country. However, the right attitude is for our leaders to not use presumptions to bring down proposals for a policy review, but to ensure that the entire machinery of the government is fully-utilised to look into the possibility of managing our resources efficiently.

The reality is, there is no one way of ensuring happiness for the people, although among the important considerations of living a happy life are rooted from universal values. No matter if it is the Singaporean, Swedish or Bhutanese model, each has its own outlook to ensure a contented living for its citizensalthough not necessarily perfect. In fact, it will never beso long as the concept of happiness is contemplated in isolation of other aspects that matter.

Taking a step back, however, we have to ask ourselves if there is a price to human well-being and happiness?

Did we vote in our politicians to run the country like a corporation in maximising revenues, or to manage the country’s resources for the benefit of the people?

Are the potentials of a country doomed if it decides to take care of its citizens and to protect non-citizens alike; which among other goals is to make them more positive and happy to live, rather than being depressive or suicidal about it?

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Politicians Should Be Guided by the SDGs of the United Nations

This is why it is important for decision-making processes to be liberated from political, corporate and populist considerations. In fact, our leaders have to be convicted in making it possible for global goals to be achieved across political spectrum.


Bernie Sanders is One Consistent Politician

It may sound rhetorical for me to say thisbut believe it or not, there are leaders out there who are visionary and adamant to bring changes for the happiness of the people, and not for any other stakeholders.

Our duty as global citizens then is to ensure that the ill-informed and the complacent are reminded that the choice to be happy, is always in our hands.


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