NEW YORK -- More than 600 world leaders, economists, and development experts packed a UN conference room on April 2 to discuss an increasingly accepted theory: that happiness is just as important to a country's success
as its gross national product (GNP).
Hosted by the Kingdom of Bhutan, the three-day conference aims to produce a comprehensive report for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with a road map indicating how to improve happiness around the world.
The UN "happiness" movement got under way last July, when the General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the secretary-general to study how the study of "the pursuit of happiness and well-being" could be used to advance the UN's ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
First-day speakers included Ban, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, and ministers from India, Japan, Israel, Morocco, Thailand, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
It also featured 2001 Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute.
A key idea of the conference is the major role that environmental stability and "fair use" of resources plays in a nation's happiness. Costa Rica, which has the greenest economy in the world, was lauded as a model.
Many speakers, like Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigmi Y. Thinley, spoke about how hyperconsumerism hurts society's happiness. Thinley condemned "mindless consumerism" and the "immorality" of consuming the world's resources:
"Having far outlived its usefulness, our fundamentally flawed economic arrangement has itself become the cause of all problems," he said. "Within its framework, there lies no solution to the economic, ecological, social, and security crises that plague the world today and threaten to consume humanity."
Sachs echoed the view that the world’s current economic model is unsustainable.
"We've reached the limit of doing it the old way," he said. "We can't go farther the way we have been going. If we continue to have economic growth in the manner of our current technologies, we will undermine the very basis not only for that growth but for survival. And that's already happening -- that is not hyperbole."
'World Happiness Report'
Sachs used the conference to launch the Earth Institute's first "World Happiness Report,"
which showed that the happiest countries -- Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands -- are also among the richest, and the least happy countries were all poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Happiness, Sachs said, is a trait that can be learned -- such as by teaching children altruistic and compassionate values -- and that can also be encouraged by government, such as by limiting advertising to prevent hypermaterialism in a society.
Stiglitz said GNP is a poor measure of well-being, not least because it measures society as a whole. For example, while GNP in the United States has been rising for decades, wages for the majority of Americans have been decreasing.
Similarly, he said the unemployment crises in the United States and the European Union need to be considered not just as statistics that affect GNP but as crises that have caused suffering -- and a loss of happiness -- for millions.