forum discussion #39

Promoting Happiness as Public Policy

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Listen to our story about Michael Pennock’s work here.

He is our guest in this Science Forum discussion. Pennock is a public health expert with the Provincial Health Services Authority in Vancouver, British Columbia. Until recently, he worked at the Vancouver Island Health Authority in Victoria.

In 2006, Pennock and his wife, Martha, helped Bhutan develop its Gross National Happiness Index by creating a survey to measure happiness. They have since designed a similar survey for their hometown, Victoria, and it is being adopted by other cities elsewhere in the world. The idea is that these happiness indices can help governments create policies that improve the public’s quality of life.

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When a colleague first invited Pennock to help with Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, he was skeptical. “We [in Western countries] have a bit more discomfort with the idea of happiness as a government policy issue,” he says. “You know, if you use that phrase over here, they’d probably wonder what you’d been smoking.”

Pennock’s skepticism stemmed from the fact that, in Western countries, governments focus on economic development. The assumption is that happiness will follow. But, as Pennock came to learn, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“In a lot of developed countries, despite the fact that in the last 20-25 years we’ve seen a substantial amount of economic growth, the percentage who say they’re satisfied with their life is completely flat and. in some cases, [has] dropped off,” he says.

That has led several countries to adopt Bhutan’s approach. The U.K., France, China and Ecuador are measuring happiness in their populations in order to develop happiness indices.

Because happiness is a subjective thing, these surveys leave it up to the respondents to use their own definition of happiness. The idea is to measure not just how happy people are, but also how satisfied they are with their lives. (In Pennock’s survey, happiness and life-satisfaction levels are taken together as a gauge of quality of life.) The surveys also ask people about factors known to influence happiness, like health, trust in government, quality of the environment and a sense of community and social support.

Pennock’s happiness survey revealed that the people of Victoria are pretty content with their lives. They scored their happiness and life-satisfaction levels at 7.6 on a 10-point scale. Victorians rated themselves highly on their sense of community and the state of their environment. However, most respondents said they were struggling to live a balanced life. The city government is trying to figure out how it can ease the time crunch Victorians experience. Whether the city succeeds in this effort will be revealed by future happiness surveys.

Additional Resources:
The Happy Planet Index
‘Britain to introduce ‘happiness index,’ on American Public Media’s Marketplace.
More on the U.K.’s and France’s efforts to measure happiness.
Learn more about happiness and well-being from one of the world’s foremost well-being researchers, Nic Marks.


The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

    Bhutan has given the world a new concept of progress which tries to balance social, ecological, cultural, political and economic considerations. How feasible do you think it is for western communities, organizations and nations to adopt more comprehensive frameworks of change and development? Do you know of examples where this is already happening?

    I look forward to your comments!

  2. Sam Tolkiy

    Heard the story on NPR on Monday 10/03 and found it fascinating.
    I heard about Happiness-Index before, but never heard that you CAN establish one for your city/community.

    I would be fascinated to learn on how to accomplish that.

    I live in Amherst NY, which is part of Buffalo NY’s subburb. I think Amherst would rank higher on the Happiness-Index than Buffalo would, and so would almost, if not, all, Buffalo’s subburbs.

    There is a study that came out of University at Buffalo on happiness. I would love to get those scientists involved and get working on identifying, studying and (hopefully) improving our (Amherst/Buffalo/National) Happiness-Index.

    Thank you

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Hello Sam

      Glad to hear that you enjoyed the story. If any community is interested in trying the survey, they should contact There are some requirements that need to be met such as an appropriate sampling of community residents but we are happy to help.

  3. Carolyn

    A happiness survey was completed recently in Somerville, MA. It was inspired in part by Bhutan:–being

    It claims to be the first in the US.

    Good luck with your work- I hope it increases the world’s happiness.

  4. Sam Tolkiy

    Another note to add.

    I am not originally from the area, and I think that matters.

    But, a lot of locals and transplants into greater Buffalo area complain, great deal, (including me) about the weather.

    The fact that we have more than 6 months of cold weather. And it is not just the cold and snow. It’s the gloomy skies, all throughout the fall/winter/spring months.

    I think the same “problems” affect a lot of near-by cities in NYS, PA and OH. I heard that Pitsburgh has similar weather related issues.

    Besides the SAD – Seasonal Affective(sp) Disorder, do you think that the weather/how much sun we get, affects overall mood and happiness and life satisfaction? Or more importantly, how much does the bad weather affect person’s happiness and life satisfaction?

    Thank you very much

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Good question, I am not familiar with the detailed research about weather and mood but some of the happiest countries in the world (Scandanavian countries and Canada) have their share of cold weather.

  5. Jerry Beckerman

    Thank you for your leadership in this arena. What is your thinking about IQL (Internal Quality of Life), the space where, arguably, we have the potential for 100% control of our perception of our existence at any point in time? While external factors are of course “real,” our orientation to these factors, such as whether or not we respond a situation with anger or acceptance, is ultimately, with practice, a matter of choice. Is it then useful to explore IQL separate from our exploration of Quality of Life, or do you see IQL as a subset of QOL?

    Thank you for a reply to my email.


    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Hi Jerry

      That is a very intriguing question. It is one that our Bhutanese colleagues might be better to answer. IQL is a concept which would fit very well with the Buddhism that governs their lives. Within the Gross National Happiness Framework, psychological wellbeing is identified as one of the key determinants of happiness and IQL appears to share a lot in common with our measures of psychological wellbeing. The GNH framework would probably place IQL as a subset of QOL.

      What do you think?

  6. Andrew Carlson

    I was one of the happiest persons that could ever exist, until I was laid-off from the hosp. that I was employed at. I immediately began the job search w/zero luck. My family became destitute. The lack of MONEY eventually began to eat away at the items that made me happy. My wife was over me personally even though I spent every waking moment searching. My children lost all respect for me for the same reason. Family and friends stopped calling me. My health fell apart. The economy prevented me from getting ANY job. SADLY, MONEY IN THE U.S.A. IS THE CORE OF HAPPINESS. THE LACK OF MONEY BEGINS THE COLLAPSE OF EVERYTHING.

    Now, I have my career back. My family treats me with respect. My friends call me. I feel that I am loved again. My return of money has made me happy because of all the side effects that having money or the lack of money represents. It is so sad and disappointing. But when you have no money, there is a spill down effect that destroys all your happiness.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Your story is very interesting, Andrew, and I am glad that it ended well. The relationship between money and happiness is complex and the research on the topic is very interesting. One conclusion, however, is inescapable-unemployment takes a terrible toll on wellbeing and happiness. Your story is illustrative- not only does unemployment affect income, it can also affects a number of the other determinants of happiness and wellbeing- fanily, social support from friends and health. Thanks for the contribution.

  7. Marialice

    Hello… thanks for the interesting story specially now as most of the world seems grim with so much hardship due to the difficult economic times, wars and their consequence… so a story about happiness is quite appealing. It was mentioned that the survey/study has also been done in Brazil. How can one access that information? How do other contries compare with Victoria? Do people from lets say Buthan and Brazil have the same definition for “quality of life”, “happiness” and what contributes to them? Can we take these findings to Presidents or perhaps the United Nations to put in their agenda to make an appeal to help work toward and address this topic in our world now? What a dream to have – more people across the earth feeling happy and living with a better quality of life! Thanks.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      If you are interested in how other countries fare on basic measures of happiness, check the Happy Planet Index. Different cultures and countries do ascribe different weights to the contributors to happiness and wellbeing but the basic contributors tend to be similar. So the Bhutanese tend to ascribe a greater weight to material wellbeing than Canadians because of their levels of poverty. The also ascribe greater weight to spirituality. It is interesting that you should mention the UN. There was recently a high-level conference in Bhutan that was chaired by the economist Jeffery Sachs and I understand that there is some kind of presentation on GNH in the making to the UN but I don’t know the details.

  8. Gregg Rutter


    Thank you for your work.

    I am a teacher at a public elementary school in Minnesota. I would be interested to hear your thoughts about creating a school program, or even a school district-wide program that would promote happiness.

    Your thoughts/feedback?
    Thank you!

    Om Mani Padme Hung

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      I think it’s a great idea. Martha and I were recently involved in analyzing the results of a survey of school principals in Bhutan as they were making the incorporation of GNH concepts into curriculum a priority. Haven’t heard what has happened to the initiative. A friend named Ross McDonald at the University of Aukland in New Zealand has given a lot of thought to the issue of GNH in education.

  9. Hadn’t heard of the happiness policy project before the NPR story, but it seems a wonderful antidote to the research IBM has been doing the last few years with their Commuter Pain Index. It’s important to pinpoint the problems, especially regarding the pain incurred on so many levels of life due to long commutes, however focusing on happiness seems an promising approach. As Einstein said “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

    I work with drivers, business and recreational, and daily hear of the pain they encounter just in the effort to get where they’re going. It’s wonderful to help them find options and I look forward to learning more about promoting happiness as a public policy.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Yes, commuting has emerged as the scourge of wellbeing in many urban area s. It is one the ironies of our culture that one of the first things many people do when their incomes rise is look for the big house with the big yard in the suburbs and then watch their levels of happiness fall as the join the deadlock on our highways.

  10. Theodore A. Hoppe

    Happiness? Daniel Kahneman tells us in his TED talk “there are several cognitive traps that sort of make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness.” It turns out that the word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things. We have to adopt a term for what well being means. He adds that there is a difference between the experience and the memory of happiness: ” basically it’s between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life.” And third is the focusing illusion, ” and it’s the unfortunate fact that we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.”

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Daniel Kahneman has been a critical contributor to the scientific research on the contributors to happiness. We have adopted his approach in the GNH questionnaire by measuring life-satisfaction as well as the respondents experience of positive and negative emotions. Both are necessary. I highly recommend his TED talk as well as talks by Daniel Gilbert and Nik Marks.

      • Theodore A. Hoppe

        But Mr Pennock, you seem to be missing the point that you cannot simply ask people if the are “happy” via a questionnaire and except the result to be meaningful.
        Until extremely recently, happiness wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable right. Instead, it was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a virtuous, and often self-denying, life. As McMahon points out in Happiness: A History, the words for happiness in both ancient Greek—eudaimonia—and every Indo-European language include, at the root, a cognate for “luck.” In English, it’s happ, or chance—as in happenstance, haphazard, perhaps. The implication is that being happy means being lucky. And luck is not something we can entirely will.

        “Happiness is fine as a side effect,” says Adam Phillips.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

        Interesting point but I am afraid I can’t agree with you. Your definitions of “happiness” reflect the greco-christian interpretation. The Buddhist notion, which forms the basis of the GNH framework, is quite different- reflecting a general sense of satisfaction with one’s life. This is the orientation which is used in most of the research on happiness and there are a number of reliable and valid ways of measuring it. Your point reflects the fact that the term “happiness” can be difficult when it is used in western cultures. I tend to use the term “wellbeing” for that reason.

  11. Rob Segall

    Excellent program today. As always, I am thankful to NPR and WUNC for keeping me well informed. I’m interested in your thoughts regarding online communities… they are becoming more prevalent and meaningful in people’s lives. Other than typical satisfaction surveys or interpreted results based on usage and drop-off, I’m curious if your survey could be adapted to discover the happiness quotient of members of communities formed and maintained virtually/online.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      I am not aware of any research that has been done about on-line communities. Very interesting notion. The GNH Community Wellbeing survey can be done as an on-line survey so, technically, it shouldn’t be a problem. The primary methodological issue would relate to sampling. Not sure how that would work with an on-line community. It is important to do the sampling properly to ensure that the results are representative of the community.

  12. Richard

    Mr. Pennock,

    I am curious to know if your work builds upon a literature review of the academic / scholarly work on happiness and/or positive psychology? Seligman’s (2011) PERMA framework seems especially relevant.

    Thank you.

    Richard C.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      The original Gross National Happiness framework was developed through a number of international conferences and collaborations to ensure that it was based on sound research evidence. The scholarly work on positive psychology and happiness figured prominently in these deliberations. The framework of contributors within the GNH framework has a strong empirical basis.

      • Richard

        Thanks! I’ll dig further into this. The NPR story was the first I had heard of your work, which is amazingly cool!

        Best….Rich Cummins

  13. Very good interview and very timely as governments at town and state or province levels as well as national entities look for new ways to measure real progress. In July the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution to encourage all countries to develop and share research on using alternative well-being measures to guide development. Sixty-eight countries co-sponsored this resolution.

    In the United States, Gross National Happiness USA (GNHUSA)is a network of groups and individuals working to develop best practices and encourage all levels of government, organizations and businesses to utilize Happiness measures to guide their development. Our website at has many resources and articles on efforts around the world. Email for information in the USA.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Thanks for the contribution, Tom.

  14. Al

    Hi Mr. Pennock,

    Have there been locations where the same happiness survey has been repeated? I’m wondering if the publication of the results itself has an influence on future surveys of the same population. If it does I would expect that influence to be greater if the followup survey is done sooner rather than later. I’m thinking that those aware of the results of a previous survey will be influenced to conform to the norm for their community. If any such influence does exist it could be affecting not only the subsequent responses but also indirectly the actual level of personal satisfaction. This would leave you with a moral dilemma – should you publish low satisfaction results, and consequently any results at all?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      Not aware of any locations. The Victoria survey was just completed for a second time, almost three years after the original version. They plan on doing it every two years so the effects of one adminstration will probably be far removed from the previous administration. I’m not aware of any literature that suggests respondents will move towards the mean in community surveys. But I will look into it.

      Thanks for the interesting question.

  15. John Magana

    Dear Mr. Pennock,

    Perhaps I’m too late to participate in this discussion…

    Could you please recommend some good source material for what makes people happy? …Or perhaps share some of your own distillations of this work?

    I’m writing a book about yoga, and I’d like to know what modern studies say about what yoga attempts to achieve.

    Thank you!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

      There has been an exponential growth in publications and books on happiness during the past decade so it is hard to recommend specific books or articles. Anything recent by Ed Diener, Martin Seligman or Daniel Kahneman is worth looking at. Time magazine and Atlantic have done good overviews. There is also a series of presentations on TED via the internet.

      Good luck.

  16. What a great study, post, and discussion. It seems to me it’s long overdue that happiness is one of the things that we as a race focus on. I’m not a college graduate, I’m not wealthy, and I live in OH (where as mentioned earlier–the weather can be pretty crappy) but I’m happy. (I’d rate myself an 8 :) )I’ve met too many people that have it much better than me and are miserable. In addition, I’ve met a ton of people as well who have it FAR worse–and would probably rate themselves the same as me! I hope the US picks up this study as a trend and we see more and more developments nationwide!

  17. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? MPennock

    Thanks to everyone for the great comments. There is some very serious international momentum building around the idea of happiness-based frameworks of progress. We can thank Bhutan for throwing the first pebbles in the pond and now the ripples are spreading far and wide. Stay tuned.

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