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Plenary: Citizen happiness - The formula for government success

12 February 2014


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Government policies have a direct impact on individuals' happiness and more and more world leaders are seeing the importance of this on people's wellbeing.

Citizen happiness is now a key objective of governments worldwide, and their true success is closely linked to Gross Domestic Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product.

In the Government Summit Plenary Session entitled: "Citizen Happiness – the Formula for Government Success", an internationally acclaimed economist argues that happiness simply is a lifelong pursuit of values and virtues.

More than just the acquisition of material wealth, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, USA, said that a country can have all the material wealth in the world but if there is no pursuit of values or virtues, happiness can never be achieved.

Reflecting on the philosophies of Aristotle, he said the end purpose of life is happiness and happiness is not simply to be delivered. Rather, it is to be achieved by an individual through pursuit of virtue. And governments can, and should promote citizen happiness, which the UAE has been able to champion.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) ranks 14th in the world in terms of happiness index, even outshining the United States on the list which ranked 17th despite its vast wealth.

He commended the UAE for being a good example. "I hope we can take UAE's example and keep up," Sachs said. "Promoting happiness is a lifetime pursuit of virtue; and virtue is learned by example, habit and instruction. This is a simple idea, but it is not seen in many countries."

Islamic principles, he said, embody these virtues. "If the society only pursues materialistic objectives, without minding charitable deeds, the society will not prosper. This virtue is embedded in the great insights of Islam. Zakhat, for example, is a fundamental pillar of a good life."

However, he also stressed that physical well-being - away from the detrimental effects of poverty - is necessary for an individual to be happy. He said studies show that fulfilling the biological or physical needs during early stage of life will largely determine a person's happiness in the later stage of his life.

"Income per person definitely matters," said the professor who made history during his time when at age 28 became the youngest economics professor at Harvard. "Promoting happiness is a life-long process of virtue and it starts in the early, vulnerable stage of childhood."

In addition to physical and mental health, social support and freedom also play a big factor in making a person happy. "A person with social support is far happier than the one who lives in isolation. The freedom to make life choices is also a major determinant of happiness."

While social support from friends and family play a role in every individual's pursuit of happiness, so are the tenets of basic public services. He cited Denmark as an example. Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world.

He said Danish citizens enjoy "a good balance of life" thanks to the government's sound policies that put emphasis on social responsibility, assistance to the poor, children's basic education and the overall wellbeing of its residents.

"Material well-being is part of life moderation," he said.

He reiterated that the UAE, which is set to host the Dubai 2020 Expo, is a good example of good governance that translates to people's happiness.
While many countries in the Middle East are experiencing violence and war, the UAE is busy building a better future for its next generation.

"The UAE has done pioneering works in discovering new ways to achieve happiness," he said. "Expo 2020 will provide inspiration to the whole world. We will see in the expo a vision of a good future."