• Bhutan has measured its gross national happiness since 1972. (Getty Images)
More and more governments are putting happiness on their agenda – but what exactly does that mean?
By
Caitlin Chang

23 Feb 2016 - 2:52 PM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2016 - 2:59 PM

The United Arab Emirates have appointed their first Minister of Happiness. One of eight female ministers in the Persian Gulf nation’s cabinet, Ohood Al Roumi, was sworn in earlier this month.

What will she do? “Align and drive policy to create social good and satisfaction,” Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, announced in a series of tweets.

According to the latest United Nations World Happiness Report, oil-rich UAE is the 20th happiest country in the world. So do they need a Happiness Minister?

Dr Tim Sharp, positive psychologist and CEO of The Happiness Institute believes there are many benefits to governments taking a more proactive approach towards a community’s happiness, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be through a happiness index or ministry.

“There’s a whole bunch of related constructs [to measure happiness]. There’s wellbeing, quality of life, life satisfaction,” he explains. From taxes on cigarettes to traffic-light systems for packaged foods, “For some time governments have designed policy, even designed tax, to improve health and wellbeing," he says.

Governments for some time have designed policy, even designed tax, to improve health and wellbeing.

“My argument would be that happiness is a part of that, as long as we define happiness properly and see health as not just a physical phenomenon but also a psychological one.”

So how can you actually measure an emotion like happiness? According to Dr Sharp; keeping track of a country’s happiness has two sides: addressing mental health problems and promoting positive psychological health. “That’s where happiness comes in. But you need to do both – we can do much more by enhancing positive emotions in addition to addressing psychological problems.”

Whether it’s through promoting health strategies, or improving life satisfaction through access to health care, public transport or better education, there are a range of wider benefits that come with happy citizens.

“Happiness is associated with better physical health,” says Dr Sharp. “[Happy citizens] are more likely to be physically healthy, be altruistic, build positive relationships, and more likely to be a positive, active participant in their community.”

Ensuring citizens are happy is particularly important in countries facing an ageing population. “The research supports that happy people are more likely to live longer, but they’re also more likely to live better because they remain independent for longer,” says Dr Sharp.

For Dr Sharp, promoting what he calls the positive psychology of citizens is a “no-brainer” for governments. But it has to be a joint effort. “One question that comes up is, is it really the government’s responsibility? Governments can make it easier for people to do what they think they should do it, but self-responsibility is an important part – you can’t have one without the other.”

Here’s a snapshot of how some other countries put happiness on the agenda:

Bhutan: The small Himalayan nation has legislated happiness since 1972 when King Kigme Singye Wangchuc decided the country’s Happiness Index took priority over its GDP. Its Gross National Happiness Commission is tasked with monitoring levels of happiness in the country.

Switzerland: Taking out the number one spot in the UN World Happiness Report 2015 (nearby Denmark and Iceland were number two and three), the Scandinavian country has universal health care, and some of the healthiest citizens in the world. They also have one of the best transport systems and internet infrastructure, ensuring that communities stay connected.

Ecuador: The South American nation adopted the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay (good living in harmony with communities) in 2008 and in 2013 established a State Secretary of Buen Vivir, which roughly translates to good living or wellbeing. Today Ecuador’s happiness minister Freddy Ehlers, a former TV personality, has a staff of 30 in his team. 

Australia: While there’s no government-run happiness index, the Australian Bureau of Statistics often puts the spotlight on our health and wellbeing. Last year, the results of The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey revealed the habits of the happiest citizens, which included not smoking, working later in life, and drinking in moderation. And it helps to move out of the big smoke - people who lived in smaller towns tended to have greater life satisfaction.  

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