We live in an age of stark contradictions. The world enjoys technologies of unimaginable sophistication; yet has at least one billion people without enough to eat each day. The world economy is propelled to soaring new heights of productivity through ongoing technological and organizational advance; yet is relentlessly destroying the natural environment in the process. Countries achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to new crises of obesity, smoking, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life.
We face a set of real choices. Should the world pursue GNP to the point of environmental ruin, even when incremental gains in GNP are not increasing much (or at all) the happiness of affluent societies? Should we crave higher personal incomes at the cost of community and social trust? Should our governments spend even a tiny fraction of the $500 billion or so spent on advertising each year to help individuals and families to understand better their own motivations, wants, and needs as consumers? Should we consider some parts of our society to be “off bounds” to the profit motive, so that we can foster the spirit of cooperation, trust, and community?
There are reasons enough to believe that we need to re-think the economic sources of well-being, more so even in the rich countries than in the poor ones. High-income countries have largely ended the scourges of poverty, hunger, and disease. Poor countries rightly yearn to do so. But after the end of poverty, what comes next? What are the pathways to well-being when basic economic needs are no longer the main drivers of social change? What will guide humanity in the Anthropocene: advertising, sustainability, community, or something else? What is the path to happiness?
What we learn in the World Happiness Report 2012 is that happiness differs systematically across societies and over time, for reasons that are identifiable, and even alterable through the ways in which public policies are designed and delivered. It makes sense, in other words, to pursue policies to raise the public’s happiness as much as it does to raise the public’s national income. Bhutan is on to something path breaking and deeply insightful. And the world is increasingly taking notice.