Well-being takes the global stage

Photo credit:   isriya

April 3, 2012 // By:

Yesterday, the United Nations hosted a high level meeting on happiness and well-being. Initiated and led by the Government of Bhutan, the meeting was attended by more than 600 people from all over the world, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, experts from the fields of well-being, economics, psychology and sustainability (including Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz), senior Government officials and politicians, and the Dalai Lama. Unlike many high level meetings and conferences where experts often leave shortly after speaking, most remained for the whole day.

The fact that the UN held this meeting and that it was attended by top politicians and world experts is significant. It demonstrates that the well-being agenda is a serious issue, not a gimmick being used by politicians to detract attention from other matters. Most of the attendees agreed that robustly and systematically measuring population well-being is an important way to improve policy-making in a world facing growing challenges. And several speakers, including Sir Gus O’Donnell (who, until recently, was head of the UK civil service), argued in favour of including well-being as one of the sustainable development goals when the Millennium Development Goals are reviewed next year. While much will need to be done to ensure that well-being does get systematically measured and used for policy making, this is definitely positive step in the right direction.

It was also great to see that several speakers, including leading economist Jeffrey Sachs, discussed the planetary boundaries of the current economic growth model and highlighted how consumption that brings no joy may actually bring about harm. These discussions illustrated the need to consider costs, particularly environmental and ecological costs. Countries in Northern Europe such as Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands may have very high levels of life satisfaction, but their ecological footprints are also high.

I was therefore very pleased to see nef’s Happy Planet Index discussed prominently at the meeting, including during the opening session led by Ban Ki-Moon and the President of Costa Rica. Unlike many indicators which don’t consider environmental costs, the Happy Planet Index is an efficiency index of the well-being produced per unit of resources consumed. Countries such as Costa Rica, where people have happy and healthy lives at a relatively low cost to the planet, score very well. But countries with high ecological footprints do less well, even if they do very well on standalone measures of well-being.

The third global edition of the Happy Planet Index will be released in the run up to the UN’s Rio +20 meeting this June. We hope that that Rio will build on yesterday’s meeting on defining a new economic paradigm, and help take us towards a more sustainable world where well-being measurements are at the heart of policy making. Several countries and groups are making serious efforts in the transition, and the UN doing so could be real impetus for change.

Issues

Wellbeing

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