The world needs to move away from measuring success in purely economic terms, and should instead consider other criteria, including distribution of resources, sustainability, health, human rights and education.
This observation was part of the discussions that took place in a landmark meeting of the United Nations (UN), last month calling for new measurements of wellbeing beyond GDP in the run up to the Rio sustainability summit in June.
The High Level Meeting 'Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm' was hosted on 2 April by the Government of Bhutan at the UN headquarters in New York.
It brought together hundreds of representatives from governments, religious organizations, academia and civil society to discuss the issue. The discussion was chaired by Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA).
'The economic crisis, accelerating environmental degradation and growing discontent around the world all point to one conclusion - GDP as the sole measure of success has reached the end of the road,' said McGlade in her opening address.
Many environmental analyses carried out by the EEA underline the importance of breaking the link between environmental damage and economic growth if we are to achieve continued prosperity, without destroying the natural systems that sustain us. The EEA is also working on alternative approaches to measuring progress, such as valuing the services provided by ecosystems which are essential to human wellbeing.
Speaking at the meeting, Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon said: 'We need an outcome from Rio+20 that says that happiness and well-being are measured in more than gross national income - and that they are fundamental goals in themselves.'
What makes us happy?
Like Bhutan, Costa Rica often tops lists of the happiest countries and is an exemplar of environmental protection. In a keynote address, President Laura Chinchilla described Costa Rica's development of democratic institutions, education, environmental conservation and justice as major milestones in their success. 'I represent a country that, despite its modest resources, has managed to continually improve the quality of life of its people,' she said.
Chinchilla made a similar observation at the opening sesson of GLOBE Latin America in June 2011 noting that achieving goals of suatainable development 'requires transforming concepts and policies into business investment and public-private partnerships, and changing our mentality which determines our behaviour and what we do.' See GLOBE-Net article 'GLOBE Latin America Achieves Successful Launch in Costa Rica.'
India's Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan also stated her support for the idea that 'human development should be based in equal measure on material progress, social inclusion, cultural life and living in harmony with nature.' Japanese minister Joe Nakano noted that 'happiness is not proportional to economic wealth' in his country.
Several sessions over the course of the meeting aimed to define the different elements of happiness, outlining a vision which Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz called 'a new economic paradigm'. In addition to psychological and physical wellbeing, panellists discussed elements of ecological sustainability, efficient resource use and equitable distribution of resources.
The Speaker of the Parliament of Finland, Eero Heinäluoma said that his country sees the Rio summit 'as a unique opportunity to rethink the current perception of growth and consumption.'
He continued: 'Let us support Rio+20 by making a political commitment to establish new indicators, then by committing ourselves to a UN-led process for developing such measures and lastly by mainstreaming the new measures into policy-making.'