The Happiness Minister: progress or politics?

The United Arab Emirates is on a quest to improve its wellbeing ranking.

Adnan Abidi/REUTERS
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) gestures as he holds the hand of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE's Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces during a ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India today.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is on a mission to become “the happiest of all nations.” The government took a step towards that goal when it appointed a minister of happiness on Wednesday.

Ohood al-Roumi was appointed to the post in cabinet restructuring that saw seven women added to the country’s cabinet. According to the government, as minister of happiness, Ms. Roumi will implement programs and plans to increase national happiness.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE’s vice president and prime minister, announced the position on Twitter, saying “A new post, Minister of State for Happiness, will align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction.”

The UAE also announced ministries of tolerance and youth. The appointee for minister of tolerance is also a woman, a young Oxford graduate named Shamma al-Mazrui.

In the 2015 World Happiness Report, the UAE earned the respectable rank of 20th worldwide. Factors that influence a country’s ranking in the World Happiness Report include both the expected, such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and average life expectancy, and the unexpected, such as social support and generosity.

Although the UAE’s current ranking is respectable, the country has even greater ambitions for the future. According to the UAE’s official plan for the future, Vision 2021, it hopes to rank among the top five most happy countries in the world in five years.

For a long time, many looked to economic measures like GDP to evaluate national wellbeing. Recently, however, politicians and economists alike have recognized the value of life satisfaction and happiness in measuring the prosperity of their nations.

In 1972, Bhutan introduced its gross national happiness index. The country was then in the process of modernizing and recovering from an agricultural, impoverished past and its leaders saw economic measures as inadequate indicators of their country’s wellbeing.

Bhutan’s former prime minister Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley is an outspoken proponent of the gross national happiness measurement and instrumental to spreading the idea around the world, to academics and politicians alike.

"Material well-being is only one component,” said Thinley in 2005, “That doesn't ensure that you're at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other."

Although Bhutan has moved on from talking exclusively about the gross national happiness index to policies that counter “barriers to wellbeing,” according to current prime minister Tshering Tobgay, the government still keeps a close eye on non-economic measures of wellbeing.

Economic research and analysis over the last several decades has shown that happiness is not necessarily directly proportional to national or individual wealth.

Dr. John Helliwell, an economics professor and co-director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, says that some of the important factors in determining happiness include generosity and community belonging rather than pure measures of income.

Bhutan is not alone. Other countries, including the UAE, have adopted some form of Bhutan’s well-being measure to help guide public policy.

Canada, Germany, and Britain have all indicated interest in life satisfaction indices. As Thinley campaigned worldwide for happiness in 2005, Canada was in the process of developing its own index.

In 2010, the UK announced that it planned to measure wellbeing, with Liberal MP Jo Swindon saying, "Relying solely on GDP to track the nation's progress excludes many of the things that we all know to be important, but that can't be measured by money.” Prime Minister David Cameron agreed.

In 2013, Venezuela created a  “vice ministry of supreme social happiness.” Ecuador followed suit, and created a state secretary for what translates as “good living.”

Critics of happiness ministries often claim that such positions exist more for propaganda purposes than legitimate utility. In 2013, Venezuela’s vice minister for social happiness told National Public Radio that his work includes creating programs for the poor and disadvantaged. In 2013, the World Happiness Report ranked Venezuela first among Latin American nations.

In Ecuador, “good living” secretary Freddy Ehlers is engaging in similar measures. He has championed health and education policies that advance wellbeing over strict economic advancement.

Criticisms of happiness rankings include accusations that some cultures, including Latin American cultures, tend to hide unhappiness, thereby skewing rankings. Some also say that relying on happiness measures could lead governments to neglect long-term problems as they focus on their successes instead.

In Venezuela’s case, some have said that they dislike the idea of their government legislating happiness. The UAE’s fledgling happiness minister could run into the same problem.

Whether the UAE’s happiness hopes are merely a Panglossian ideal remains to be see, but at number 20 in the World Happiness Rankings, the government has space to improve.

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