To say that happiness is the point of life is almost too glib to be a point even worth debating. We all want to be happy, more than anything else. Even typing that sentence feels superfluous. No-one, even Morrissey, truly wants to be unhappy.
But when arranging our society, we come over with a case of the Testosterone Vapours and abandon fluffy things like “being happy” and prioritise Big, Strong and Very Successful things like - sigh - money.
When we measure success on a large scale - like countries or businesses - we generally ignore happiness. Instead, we measure things like Gross National Product, which is the value of all the stuff a country and its people makes, or obsess over the stock market, which is basically trainspotting for obscenely rich people.
The unspoken assumption is that the bigger these big numbers, the happier the associated people will be, because why on earth would these people be busy doing all of that success if it was not with the ultimate aim of being happier?
(Actually, there’s a whole bunch of reasons people work hard to make loads of money, like fear, uncertainty, and a desperation to please others - no-one of which are closely connected to the pursuit of happiness.)
So what if we made being happy the big, top-line measurement instead? Well, there’s a few huge, glittery questions that linger in the corner of the room when we discuss the state-level persuit of happiness.
Here they are: we all want to be happy… but how does “prioritising” happiness make any difference? Doesn’t happiness come as a result of other things? Isn’t happiness a result of lots of nice things all happening at once? And how the f*ck is that going to happen in a world like the one we have in 2019?
The second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is “Safety”, and under this heading is the human need for a material home space. Another of the 20th century’s great thinkers - Matt Goss from '80s UK boyband BROS - opined, “the letters, ‘H’, ‘O’, ‘M’, ‘E’ are so important because they personify the word ‘home’.” The clear conclusion of these titans of thought? Home is extremely important to finding happiness.
Tell that to the 100,000 people of Bhutan - one-sixth of the population - who had their nationality taken away from them because of their ethic Nepalese origin, and were forced to flee their homeland.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Bhutan is the only country in the world to include an index of national happiness - its “GNH” or Gross National Happiness - in the legal operation of the country. The Gross National Happiness Commission uses “Screening Tools” to decide whether governmental policies and projects add or detract from the happiness of its people (the ones it hasn’t unceremoniously expelled, obvs.)
Bhutan’s GNH thingy is not, apparently, merely a nice and cuddly distraction to make us look the other way while horrible things are done to innocent people. (Although it's worth noting that a future career in PR could await its policymakers, if the breathless western media coverage of GNH is anything to go by.)
Supposedly a series of measurable data points, it's based on detailed surveys of the population which check in on, amongst other things, their psychological well-being, education, and, erm, cultural diversity. The government then says it uses this data to benchmark progress and make future policy decisions.
It’s certainly a nice idea, and is an admirable way of analysing people and decision, and as Pharrell pointed out, “Happiness is the truth.” But could it happen in our countries, which seem locked into the GNP cycle?
A Gross Domestic Project
If you think that putting happiness front and centre in our decision-making is the kind of kale-eating, yoghurt-knitting, vegan-sausage-roll-chewing pinko nonsense that is turning our frogs gay… then you’d be dead wrong.
Because the current measures of a country’s success is the amount of dough we have, any conversation about prioritising happiness quickly veers off into areas you may not instinctively associate with happiness, like collective bargaining, higher taxes, and ending capitalism.
We have historically used GNP as the main measurement because - and this part still actually kind-of makes sense, folks - a high number means we have lots of things that allow you to buy other things. And the reason people choose to spend money is to make themselves happy!
That’s why you need money to get indisputably happiness-bringing stuff like holidays, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and puppies.
But lots and lots of money has resulted in the need to invent increasingly spurious reasons to spend all that excess money. That’s why things like gender-reveal cakes, the iPotty, and Chris Brown exist.
And the reason they exist is because it turns out that once you bought that thing you wanted, the little spike of acquistion-happiness goes pretty quickly. Therefore, our lizard-brain reasoning goes, we need to buy more stuff to get another hit o’ happy... and the cycle continues.
Incidentally, the perpetual need to keep on buying stuff is also one of the necessary components of our late-stage capitalist culture, which is something we measure via GDP. Huh.
What Money Does For People
The wider world is now embracing a more open analysis of happiness. The UN now issues a regular World Happiness Report, and yes, of course Finland is the happiest country.
Meanwhile, the hopeful souls of Gross National Happiness USA are serious about happiness - and aim to change how progress and success is measured:
“Rather than base policy and individual choice on a Gross National Product paradigm with its insistent focus on money, growth and materialism, we propose instead a more encompassing Gross National Happiness paradigm, which includes many factors that support true wellbeing for all people and the planet.”
This… sounds just fine, actually.
It’s easy to be cynical when taking seriously the idea of putting happiness first at a governmental level. We can all imagine that one dickhead who will take advantage, rule the vulnerable with fear, and f*ck us all by transmogrifying our nice, happy future into Capitalism 2.0.
Or maybe not. The most telling part of the GNH story is how deeply a “happiness-first” holistic approach to life resonates with people from financially wealthy countries: the ones with a sparkling GDP and an unhappy populace, dismayed to fing that chasing money and spending it might be a race to the bottom of the happiness pit.
So perhaps the time is right: when was the last time the world’s economy and political system was in such flux-like upheaval? Has humanity ever been better-educated, able to expound their own radical ideas and create new movements from their sofa? If enough people can agree, huge changes to policy and decision-making can be made in a snap - as the Brexiteers of the UK are finding out, with, admittedly, mixed effects on their happiness.
And what about our happiness pioneers over in Bhutan? In the UN’s 2018 World Happiness Report, when countries were ranked by happiness, Bhutan romped home 97th out of 156.