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Gross Global Happiness Has No Limit

03/07/2014 10:48 EST | Updated 05/08/2014 05:59 EDT

"Money can't buy happiness, but neither can poverty."

We've witnessed both sides of this famous argument attributed to 20th-century Polish-American writer Leo Rosten. Just as British car-racing tycoon Bernie Ecclestone confessed last year that he's never known happiness despite his billions, we've encountered a startling number of wealthy and powerful people who were clearly unhappy, including self-help gurus who made their fortunes telling others how to find joy.

But we've also seen the despair of those who can't afford their basic human needs, like clean water, healthy food or caring human contact. And just as importantly, we've noticed that when those needs are subsequently met -- with a warm meal, a friendly smile, or more lastingly with a new water well or stable source of income -- the rise in happiness is significantly greater than giving the same to someone with plenty.

The International Day of Happiness on March 20 is intended to remind us that human progress and well-being cannot be measured in dollars alone. Last year was the first-ever Happiness Day, and we heard plentiful advice on how to make ourselves happy. But if we want to maximize our planet's sum total of happiness, it would seem most efficient to share the fortune we have -- material, emotional and spiritual -- with those who have little.

The latest World Happiness Report, commissioned for the United Nations, validates the anecdotal evidence on money and joy, finding that the world's richest countries -- especially the United States -- are not necessarily the happiest, while poor countries toward the bottom of the rankings report large gains in happiness when they improve their provision of the basics of life to their people.

SEE: Expert tips on growing global happiness. Blog continues below:

Expert Tips on Growing Global Happiness

Of course, measuring happiness is more challenging than counting dollars of economic output, or Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But as Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recently argued, GDP is an imperfect gauge of well-being, given that wars, traffic accidents and natural disasters make the numbers go up, while good health, family time and volunteering do not. Also, economic growth does not take into account the natural limits of our environment and resources, while there is no limit to the amount of happiness we can fit into our world.

The idea of prioritizing "Gross National Happiness" first came from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the 1970s, and they have since developed a happiness index with 33 indicators in categories like health, education, psychological well-being, culture, community and ecology. The goal is to raise GNH numbers primarily by "improving the conditions of not-yet-happy people," and inform public policy decisions in pursuit of that objective. The concept has spread through an international network that includes the U.K.--where the Office of National Statistics now collects data on happiness, life satisfaction and anxiety--and the city of Victoria, Canada, where a coalition of community agencies measure local well-being to guide their service delivery.

In Brazil, the Felicidade Interna Bruta (FIB) movement has surveyed communities and inspired citizen-led initiatives to clean up polluted waterways and improve waste management. This winter, they unveiled plans for a Well-Being Brazil (WBB) Index to inform municipal and regional governments' policies on education, health, safety and family supports, among other indicators.

The UN's World Happiness Report, edited by Canadian, British and American economists John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, makes the economics case for promoting happiness, namely that "happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens." They recommend policy goals such as addressing mental health issues, targeting high employment and good jobs, fostering communities with high levels of social trust, and supporting citizens' family life. We would add renewing our collective commitment to social programs and international development assistance, which the report concludes bring high gains in happiness for the amount invested.

Meanwhile, there are clues to what we can each do every day to grow the sum total of happiness around us. At the individual level, say Professors Helliwell, Layard and Sachs, happiness is most affected by good mental and physical health, job security and "having someone to count on." That's even more reason to get out and volunteer in our communities, bring a warm meal to a lonely neighbour, or call a friend in need of an emotional lift.

As we begin emerging from the winter doldrums, let's each play a role in making the world a happier place, by sharing a bit of what we have -- money, food, time, friendship -- with those who could use it. The returns are worth the investment.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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Expert Tips on Growing Global Happiness