The United Nations has a large number of International Days but it keeps creating new ones. A General Assembly resolution last year proclaimed March 20 as the “International Day of Happiness.” According to the text, happiness and well-being are considered “universal goals.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added that “The pursuit of happiness lies at the core of human endeavors.”

The prime proponent of the concept was the King of Bhutan who abdicated in favor of his son and created a constitutional monarchy in his country. “Bhutan has recognized the supremacy of national happiness over national income since the early 1970s. It has famously adopted the goal of gross national happiness over gross national product (GNP).” So wrote the UN Secretary-General when the “new paradigm” was introduced at the UN a year ago.

Bhutan is a small country high in the Himalayas, nestled between China and India, where the rarified air may induce unique thoughts and concepts in people’s minds. The government has developed a 72-part indicator to measure happiness but little is known about it and it may not have been translated. Just for the record, Bhutan has a population of just over 700,000 with a life expectancy of 67 years that is one of the lowest in the world. It has a GDP of $1.6 billion (US = $16.5 trillion) indicating a per capita income of $2,285 annually. Less than half the population is literate. Herding yaks amidst majestic mountains in mostly freezing weather is a primary occupation but is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Bhutan brought the happiness agenda to the United Nations where it was embraced wholeheartedly. A few economists with high-level advisory roles at the UN are now – seriously – working on a new economic indicator encompassing “happiness” to supplement, if not replace, GDP! A few countries also have followed the initiative with the blessing of Ban Ki-moon who stated: “I am encouraged by the efforts of some Governments to design policies based on comprehensive well-being indicators.”

This is a tall order. What the thoroughly secular UN advisers may choose as components may differ markedly from the ecstatic and ephemeral moments of joy that people experience such as the thrill of a mother seeing her young child walk for the first time on her own, a saintly person lost in prayerful contemplation, the exhilaration of riding the perfect wave at Waikiki Beach, or the stunning feeling of winning a big lottery prize. A very common, long-standing American expression has it that “happiness is a warm puppy!” Are such moments quantifiable and applicable to all 200 plus countries on earth? Are economists trying to prove that economics is not the “dismal science?”

Bhutan savored its moment in the spotlight on March 20 at the UN at a two-hour event featuring a panel of happiness boosters. Attendees had the opportunity to express themselves by using post-it notes to stick on a board headed by the question: “What makes you happy?”  In a chance encounter with a scholar who had been on a recent trip to Bhutan, she confided to me that government bureaucrats there ask locals over and over if they are happy. The locals are not amused and are calling this not gross national happiness but “gross national harassment!”

For a country that wishes to be known for happiness, the government does not seem overly anxious to share Bhutan with outsiders. Visitors must obtain visas and must spend a minimum amount per day ($250 per person, $290 for single travelers). There are very few (and expensive) hotels to choose from. Trekkers must comply with stringent government requirements – permits from the military and the Forestry Department are required – to enjoy hiking through the spectacular mountains.

The local Druk Air is the only airline allowed to fly into and out of Bhutan. Pilots require special training to fly through gaps in the mountains to land at the only paved-runway airport in Paro, in the western part of the country where there is just enough flat land for a landing spot.

The happiness idea already has taken on a life of its own. The OECD has come up with a series of indicators called “Your Better Life Index.” Perhaps unsure of the direction this experiment will take, the OECD on its web site asks for input from ordinary folks to determine what matters to people in evaluating their quality of life to ultimately counterbalance wealth against well-being.

In addition to the OECD’s efforts, at least two countries have experimented with post-GDP indicators of happiness/well-being.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the United Kingdom has developed a questionnaire to measure, with great caution, “life satisfaction” on a scale from 1 to 10. From what is known, it appears to be more of a social survey subject to not-so-rigid criteria, prompting an article in the Financial Times entitled “Leave us alone in our quest for happiness”.

In mid-March, the President of the Italian Statistical Institute (ISTAT) presented to the Italian Parliament the first report, prepared jointly with the National Council on the Economy and Labor, entitled: “Equitable and Sustainable Well-Being in Italy.” The report is 274 pages long and covers 12 categories: health, education and training, work-life balance, economic well-being, social relations, government and institutions, security, subjective well-being, scenery and cultural heritage, environment, research and innovation, and quality of services.

At some point, a practical economist has to ask whether all the fuss about happiness and the “inadequacy” of GDP is a cop-out. The effects of a long recession, low economic growth, the failure of stimulus packages, burgeoning deficits, excessive indebtedness by governments and individuals, the paucity of meaningful economic reforms, and the failure of econometric models must have taken a toll on economic thinking in the developed world.

While economic prosperity for all may be unattainable, perhaps “happiness” can be a more malleable variable. Attempting to quantify the unquantifiable may yield some interesting results to reposition the status and ranking of countries through different yardsticks. While both the UK and Italy have problems with GDP growth, at least the sun shines much more often in Italy, the cultural heritage is second to none, and the cuisine is one of the healthiest – and tastiest! In the final analysis, true happiness will remain subjective and governments will still be searching for an elusive elixir to make their people happy. Moreover, to “improve” a social indicator, say poverty, one has to earn, save and spend money – and they all impact GDP!

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.