Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Wellbeing and Happiness at the United Nations

I spent last week as a participant in a High Level United Nations meeting on Wellbeing & Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. It may be my most memorable Holy Week ever. (You may have already seen reference to this in Saturday’s Globe and Mail where I was interviewed for a story about the  ‘Jesus Year‘ phenomena.)

The story of my involvement with the UN meeting began when I received a letter of invitation from the Prime Minister of Bhutan, who was convening this special UNmeeting. He quoted my blogs from the COP17 climate talks last December in Durban, South Africa, and asked me to serve as a spiritual leader at the gathering, joining Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders.

This meeting was a follow-up to a resolution unanimously approved by the UN’s General Assembly in August 2011. Canada and 67 other nations were among the sponsors. Its purpose was breathtaking: to initiate “steps towards realizing the vision of a new well being and sustainability based economic paradigm that effectively integrates economic, social, and environmental objectives.”

Bhutan is one of the world’s smallest and poorest economies, but it’s also the nation that 40 years ago declared it would be guided by Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP). And so Bhutan gives leadership, as moreand more countries discover the truth – now scientifically verified by the World Happiness Report (PDF file, 7.6 MB)  – that money can’t buy happiness.

Bhutan’s Prime Minister, the Hon. Jigmi Thinley, said it was important to have spiritual leaders participating in the meeting because “The experts, economists and scholars, including Nobel Laureates who will join us on April 2nd can only do so much. We need another dimension… by reaching deeply into our hearts, and by summoning the love, compassion and care for our fellow beings without which no amount of tinkering with policies, structures, and regulatory mechanisms will be effective.”

I immersed myself in the substantial background materials and accepted the invitation to contribute  to them as well.

As the documents explain, “When the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 enshrined GDP as the global accounting system, and created institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to regulate the present global economic system, economists did not consider that nature’s capacity to support human economic activity might have limits.”

Now that we know how damaging it is to measure economic wellbeing only in terms of ‘gross domestic product’ a growing global movement is working to create a sustainability-based economic paradigm using wellbeing indicators and national accounting systems that count natural and social capital values to assess the true costs and gains of economic activity.

If, for example, a nation were to cut down all of its forests, its GDP would mushroom because GDP counts only the timber value of forests, and only after they are cut and sold at market. GDP takes no account of the resources spared for current and future health. It ignores the value of standing trees for ecological preservation, carbon sequestration, natural beauty and other contributions.

This UN meeting was intellectually satisfying, pragmatic, spiritually rich and inspiring. Throughout April 2nd, and the two days of planning sessions which followed, the message was clear: We are one in every imaginable way, and we must bring spiritual and material wisdom together if we are to implement a sustainable way forward for our one human family .

The emerging economic paradigm is being built upon four measurable pillars: wellbeing and happiness; ecological sustainability; fair distribution; and efficient use of resources.

Canadians are playing no small role in the leadership of this movement. With world renowned economists Jeffrey Sachs and Richard Layard, the University of British Columbia’s John Helliwell is co-editor of the World Happiness Report, and his research demonstrates, for example, that the strongest correlate of happiness is not income but strong social bonds.

A Bank of Canada representative at the meeting, whom I spoke with, told me that the presentations had helped him to see how urgent the need for change is.

And, of course, there were others from around the world who brought their wisdom and commitment, including the President of Costa Rica who spoke about how her nation is taking steps to become carbon-neutral. It seems that the smallest nations, and those on the margins of the biggest nations, are giving the most energetic leadership to this movement.

Bhutan and The United Church of Canada hold some things in common. We’re about the same size in population and membership and, even though we’re small on a global scale, we can still give leadership to efforts that support life for all peoples and for Earth itself.

At Easter we contemplate how one life that was given completely in love changed the world God loves.

As we follow this One, may we too become leaven, rising again for the sake of the world God loves. May we continue to join with those of other faiths and disciplines – not only at the UN – but in our own towns and cities, to imagine and live according to a new economy that supports life today and tomorrow.

I hope to reflect and write more about all of this in the days to come. It’s so refreshing to be part of constructive efforts to imagine and implement how our economy could do that for which we long, serving the needs of all with social policy based on true measures of wellbeing.

If you’re interested in current Canadian efforts related to GNH, check out  the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and the Genuine Progress Index for Atlantic Canada.