Why a Muslim Nation May Save the World or The Rising Middle Power of Happiness

Burj Khalifa, across Festival City Marina by the_dead_pixel on Flickr Commons

To be honest, I could not have told you exactly where Dubai was when I got an invitation the Global Dialogue for Happiness, but it sure peaked my interest. “The Minister of the State of Happiness Her Excellency Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi invites you to the first Global Dialogue for Happiness at the World Government Summit this February in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.” I had heard about the appointment of a Minister for the State of Happiness, and that she was a woman. I wanted to go. Boy did I ever, but there was no way I could afford it. The work I do in the happiness movement is volunteer, unfunded and I scrape by just to meet basic costs. But then they said they would pay my way. I was in.

That was in 2017. I went to Dubai with some trepidation. I am, after all, a typical American in many ways. I have no sense of geography, and while my intention is to keep an open mind, I see in myself an institutional bias regarding Muslim culture. So, really, I was scared.

I left Dubai in 2017 with my mind blown. It was blown again in 2018.

I have been working in the happiness movement since 2010. Back then I was executive director for Sustainable Seattle, the first organization to produce regional sustainability indicators.1 We had just issued our fourth set of indicators when I learned about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index. The GNH Index was inspired. It made indicators personal, something I thought was missing from sustainability indicators. It married the individual with nature and other beings. I heard my calling. My life’s began with bringing the happiness movement to communities, universities, and governments. But there has been a stumbling block impeding progress: lack of evidence.2

A Short History of The Happiness Movement
Bhutan was the first government to start building evidence. Bhutan is a country about the size of Vermont that sits on the map between India and Tibet. If you zoom in on Bhutan with google maps, you will see it is entirely mountainous, with boarders that end where the plains begin to its south. It is the first country to use a happiness metric to guide the national government in lieu of Gross Domestic Product. The king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is famous for saying “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”3 He was seventeen at the time. It was 1972. In 2006, he abdicated, and Bhutan became a democratic monarchy. The creation of the GNH Commission, with a GNH minister, emerged. Two years later, in 2008 Bhutan first measured the happiness of its country using a comprehensive measure that spanned economic, social, environmental and personal domains. Many other countries followed suit. Eight years later, the Prime Minister of Bhutan announced that were using the happiness data to inform the country’s five-year plan at the first Global Dialogue for Happiness.

Thus far, only Bhutan has been unable to figure out how to use happiness as a guide for government, that is, until now.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the 20st happiest country on earth, according to the World Happiness Report for 2018, climbing from 21st last year.4 It placed 28th in 2016, the same year that the Prime Minister of the UAE set the goal to be among the top five ranking happiest countries on earth.5 Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland typically rotate the top five rankings.

But unlike these five happiness winners, the UAE is the only country that is transitioning from a government guided by economic growth to happiness at such a level that it exemplifies the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the only legitimate object of good government.” If the UAE displaces one of the top five, the lack of evidence other governments site for hesitating to transform their use of metrics and promulgation of policy may well be resolved.

Fig. 1 World Happiness Report 2018 Happiness Rankings

UAE Happiness Evidence Building

Quickly after the appointment of the Minister for the State of Happiness in the United Arab Emirates, a dynamic governmental structure emerged, marrying hierarchical, flat, and holacratic elements.

The Minister for the State of Happiness took her seat in the Prime Minister’s office (not a distinct cabinet) and was tasked with integrating happiness into every level of government, promoting the development of happiness skills in the community, and developing metrics to measure happiness.6 Organizational structure changes were made. Sixty employees from within the government were trained and appointed CEOs of Happiness and Positivity. Their jobs are to implement national programs that will be instrumental in raising happiness levels, and to steward a culture shift within government towards an orientation of happiness internally and externally.7

Within each governmental ministry and department, happiness councils were formed with the purpose of ensuring alignment across government department so that today, if you were to check into the goings on of, say the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, you would see their happiness charter and use of happiness metrics to measure success.8 While at the Global Dialogue for Happiness Summit, I heard on the grapevine that soon ministries of happiness in each national governmental department will be appointed.

Fig. 2 UAE Happiness Organizational Chart

Synchronous with organizational restructuring at the federal level were the formation of programs, signing of charters and gathering of resources.9 The Prime Minister signed a national Charter for Happiness.10 Soon afterwards, a cascade of Charters for Happiness were issued by governmental departments.11 A national the Happiness and Positivity Programme was formed to deliver on six goals: harmonize government plans, provide incentives to public and private entities, propose policies and coordinate implementation, raise awareness about the importance of happiness and create a cultural shift, develop metrics, and promote the UAE on a global scale.12 A happiness policy manual was issued to help governmental employees form, assess and implement happiness policies, programs and projects.13 An online portal was created to engage community members in learning and volunteering.14 Efforts to develop metrics to measure happiness at different levels resulted in an indicator, called the Happiness Meter, to transform how government interacts with people, as well as an ongoing development of a wider measure of well-being to gauge the happiness of the entire population of the UAE.15 A happiness science and research department was opened at the UAE university to produce evidence for happiness policy makers.16

To learn and share at the international level, the Global Dialogue for Happiness was convened.17 At the first meeting happiness movement leaders were brought together at roundtables to share insights and thought on the topics of measurements, policy, education and personal happiness.18 A Global Happiness Council was created with the editor of the World Happiness Report Jeffrey Sachs at its head. They authored and issued the World Happiness Policy Report, a companion piece to the World Happiness Report, at the second Global Dialogue for Happiness. In addition, during the second dialogue, five countries (Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Portugal and Slovenia) joined the UAE in the formation of a happiness coalition with the purpose of sharing and learning from each other about how to improve people’s happiness through federal level metrics, policies and programs.19

To all of this, you might ask, what exactly are the policies that the UAE has promulgated to improve people’s happiness?

Fig. 3 Happiness Programs in UAE

Smart +Happy = Dubai
The UAE is a federation of seven states, each with its own Emir. Dubai is the name shared by the state and city, and both are the most populated in the UAE. An Emir is the highest ruler of a state. The Prime Minister of the UAE also holds the role of Emir of Dubai. Opportunities for synergy do not go wasted.

Smart Dubai was launched in 2016. The mandate of the program is to make Dubai the happiest city on earth. The program is led by HE Dr. Aisha bin Bishr.20 With the creation of Smart Dubai, things quickly changed.

Staff in governmental and private sector entities were appointed as happiness campions to raise awareness, spearhead changes and measure the impact of changes.21 An online portal provides training modules to guide happiness champions.22 Eighty-four projects have been undertaken within sixteen programs.23 The happiness meter was implemented for all governmental departments, from the police to the cultural department, and then rolled out to the private sector. By 2017, the happiness meter had been used over six million times.24 The smart majlis (majlis means to council or a council) program is a crowdsourcing platform that yielded over 35,000 ideas in the first year.25 Ideas range from fixing park benches to window treatment that harnessed solar energy to the grid. People can copyright their ideas and the government responds to each idea with plans for implementation or a rational for declining.

Fig. 4 Smart Dubai Org Chart

A decision tool was developed to measure the well-being impact of a project, called Smart Happiness Project Evaluation Tool (SHAPE).26 It assesses the impact on the economy, society, government, environment and people’s mobility and access to technology; conducts a cost benefit analysis. and determines how easy it will be for people to use a service and the longevity of the benefits. If a project is found lacking, guidelines for redesigning are provided. It was rolled out for government first, with plans to extend it to the private sector.

Other projects involve the use of artificial intelligence to make it easier and faster for social entrepreneurs to attain the licenses to go into business.27 Perhaps not coincidentally, the UAE has seen a growth in social entrepreneurship, from large scale project such as clean and renewable energy, eco-development, to medium sized enterprises that provide services such as retrofitting of buildings to meet green standards and social investment banking, to smaller businesses, such as organic farming and shared workspaces to encourage social entrepreneurship.28 The police and utility departments collaborated on the development of an app they called “Happy to Pay.”29 It allows people to pay bills and fines, understand how the money is used by different departments of government, and give input into how it should be allocated.30 The goal of the app is to turn bill and fine paying from a punitive interaction to an experience of contributing to the common good.

In 2018, the Global Dialogue for Happiness featured displays about the plans in store for Dubai using artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology, called Dubai 10X.31 Most projects set happiness as their main objective and metric for success. One program was genome banking for all citizens and residents, with the use of AI to predict illness and produce suggested strategies for safeguarding one’s well-being. Another is autonomous police stations for permitting, and surveillance blimps for crime solving. There are plans to streamline charitable donations, so donors can give directly to a charity without going through a foundation. Plans are in place to open an investment market for free-zone companies (whereby block chain is projected to fulfil compliance and regulatory functions). The public utility will use AI to control and store renewable energy and the transportation authority has plans to track the life cycle of each person’s automobile. Self-driving vehicles are slated to be on roads within two years. Education programs that tailor curriculum to individual children and give them credit for developing life skills at home are in the works, as are certificate programs for all ages to develop digital skills. AI is being developed to turn solid waste into energy and repurpose waste water, with the goal of turning Dubai into a waste free city.

These plans may seem impossible until you consider that just two years ago, the country did not have happiness programs. Within one year, the nation’s happiness scores rose from 28 to 21 on the World Happiness Report scale, and then one more level the next year. Time, and the data, will tell if these and other programs make Dubai the happiest city on earth and the UAE one of the happiest countries in the world.

What We Can and Can’t Learn from the UAE
There are several factors that facilitate the awe-inspiring speed at which the UAE has adopted a happiness agenda. These factors are shared by Bhutan, also a nation with robust and functioning happiness programs and policies. Both nations are monarchies (although Bhutan recently became a democratic monarchy), and both have visionary leaders who are adored and admired by the citizenry. The cultures in both are homogenous, one Islamic, the other Buddhist. Both nations are small in relative terms and exist in a harsh climate, one desert, the other high mountains. These factors at first glance may intimate that what these nations are doing could not be replicated in a democracy, or a large nation with great cultural diversity. However, there are lessons to be learned from these factors.

The first lesson has to do with the function of government that engages in transformation within government. Even in the short time span of the happiness movement, when efforts are initiated by elected officials, they have suffered dissipation with a change in office. The lesson to be learned here is that happiness efforts are best implemented by appointed rather than elected officials, with the elected officials providing the resources and support to institutionalize happiness in government. This can be affected through the creation of an office, allocation of budgeting, and institution of bureaucratic pathways for cooperation with other departments, such as statistics, planning, budgeting, community outreach, etc. If an elected official does initiate the process, then it behooves that person to transfer ownership to appointed civil servants to carry out the progress and ensure viability in the event of a change in office. Equally important how the people who take ownership feel. The people who take ownership should feel inspired by it, feel it gives them a sense of purpose, and be of the mindset that happiness is the purpose of government. This brings us to the second lesson.

The second lesson has to do with common cultural values. Elementally, happiness is a shared human goal. In the words of Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” The desire to be happy transcends religious or political orientation. The adoption of happiness as the purpose of government is a cultural shift based on a value system that puts happiness and well-being above indiscriminant monetary gain and economic growth. Cultural shifts happen in every kind of nation, homogenous or diverse, small or large, environmentally harsh or fecund. The lesson to be learned is to emphasize the common value and goal of happiness. Differences can be resolved by focusing on representative data from a comprehensive happiness metric to tease out the basis for agreement over a division. This is an admittedly geeky lesson, but a concept that can easily be understood and implemented with open access for policy makers and the public to happiness metrics and data.

A Recipe for Happiness in Your City, Town, State or Region
This last section provides a recipe for introducing happiness into your government. It is written for community organizers and policy makers who are for an action plan to bringing to life concept that the purpose of government is to secure people’s unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This section is written as a recipe. Like any recipe, how much of an ingredient and how you mix changes depending on the climate. Thus, the author encourages you, reader, to reach out to her organization to discuss how to adapt this recipe for the unique climate of your city, town, state or region.

Happiness Ingredients:
Awareness Raising
Community Engagement
Happiness Officer or Minister
Happiness Councils
Happiness Integration
Happiness Metrics and Data
Happiness Policy Screening Tool
Happiness Policies

How to mix the ingredients:
Awareness raising within the government is the first step. Begin with talks and trainings and distributing educational materials. You can find instructions on how to give happiness talks, educational materials for the happiness movement and a white paper on the happiness movement here: www.happycounts.org/happy-community-toolkit.html. (It is important to have a good understanding of the definition of happiness, purpose of your project, and goal of your effort before raising awareness.)

Community engagement brings awareness raising and educating the public. For this step, a great deal of effort is expected to be expending regarding two topics. First, the definition of happiness will need to be addressed, and it should be made clear that the term happiness is being used synonymously with well-being and quality of life, and that happiness encompasses the domains of the government, economy, environment, education, community, and society as well as psychological and physical health. Second, it is important to make clear that the goal of government is to create the conditions for opportunities to pursue happiness, not to dictate actions or feelings of happiness. In some areas, it will be better to use the terms quality of life or well-being instead of happiness. In the UAE, the ministerial title was expanded to Minister for the State of Happiness and Well-being within a year of her appointment. This step often entails in-person town forums and community meetings as well as online portals for educating the public and soliciting ideas and volunteers. This step should also include providing resources and tools that bridge personal happiness as well as community and societal well-being. An array of such resources can be used with attribution here: http://www.happycounts.org/my-happiness-tools.html

Appointing a happiness officer or minister within government is the third step. Best practices to date are to appoint someone who is already a government employee. With the appointment of a happiness position, there should be resources allocated and a budget for community outreach, development of tools and resources, and other activities. This can be done as part of the integration of happiness into existing departments and roles. You can find a model job description here: www.happycounts.org/call-for-happiness-officer-or-minister.html

Happiness council creation is the fourth step. Happiness councils are composed of people within departments and across departments in government. The happiness office or minister acts as a guide, coordinator and resource for the councils. The job of the happiness councils is to form, reform and adapt governmental strategies, policies, programs and projects so that they contribute towards the new understanding of the happiness and well-being of the people, and then implement, monitor, measure, and evaluate them. With the creation of councils, time and budget should be allocated to ensure and incentivize their work.

Integration of happiness is the fifth step, and the work of the all people in government. Integration of happiness into government entails a systems approach. It is the job of the happiness councils, with support from the office or minister of happiness, to educate, train, enable and empower staff to integrate happiness into all they do. Integration should include of the use of happiness metrics to measure the satisfaction or happiness of people with all government service or program, and guidance for assessing and adapting governmental projects, policies and programs. These happiness metrics should be used to inform the continuation or redesign of government functions.

Measuring happiness is the sixth step. Measuring happiness should be conducted on at least two levels: a simple satisfaction with government services using, and wider measures of well-being using subjective survey instrument and objective metrics for the entire population. A satisfaction with government services measurement should be used in all interactions between the government and people, from licensing to permitting. The well-being of the entire populations should be measured using a subjective survey instrument through a random sampling. At the same time, a convenience sampling should be gathered allowing people who are not chosen through the random sampling to opt-in. In addition to subjective data, a compendium of objective indicators already available in governmental departments should gathered to give a balanced picture and reveal greater depth of information. The subjective and objective data can be used to understand which segments of a population are thriving and which need help and services. Happiness and well-being measurement tools are also a useful tool also for awareness raising and community engagement because they provide people the experience of how happiness is defined and give them an opportunity to assess their own happiness and well-being. A scientifically validated comprehensive happiness index is available here: http://survey.happycounts.org/user/signup and the methodology and data here: http://www.happycounts.org/for-researchers.html

A screening tool is the seventh step. A screening tool is used to assess a policy, project or program’s impact on happiness and well-being should be used. In Bhutan, GNH screening tools for policies and for projects are used to assess the impact of a policy under consideration. The screening tool should be introduces through training session and in conjunction with anayiss and assessment of the data collected in the sixth step. A Happiness Screening Tool based on Bhutan’s is available for adoption and adaptation here: https://www.slideshare.net/TheHappinessInitiative/happiness-policy-scree...

The eight step is the promulgation of happiness policies. Happiness policies should be developed based on community input and happiness scores, then screened, adapted and the impact measured using a happiness index. Analysis of the data gathered in step six and the screening tool from step seven should be used to help policy makers decide which policies, programs and projects to adapt or alter, and whether to form new ones. Ideas and resources for developing and adapting happiness policies are available here: http://www.happycounts.org/happiness-policies.html

Calling for Happiness Leadership
The UAE’s strategy and speed of adoption of happiness into government is breathtaking and inspiring. But the UAE is not the only government that has made headway, and because of other efforts, many at the local level, some successful, some not, the UAE has been in the position to glean important lessons and jumpstart its efforts. It is my belief and hope that those of us at the local level can now seize the opportunity to build upon the mounting evidence that happiness can and should be the purpose of government. It is my dear hope to work with you to bring your area into the forefront of the happiness movement.


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