U.A.E.'s 'happiness plan' -- fanciful?

Mar 16, 2016, 6:03 PM EDT
(Source: bert hernandez/flickr)
(Source: bert hernandez/flickr)

On Wednesday, the 2016 World's Happiness report was published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Columbia University, ranking Denmark #1 and Burundi last out of 156 countries. While economic rankings based on GDP and competitiveness have been the standard for many years, there is a growing movement towards taking into account more subjective factors like happiness, life satisfaction, freedom, and even "having someone to count on in times of trouble," as this report does.

In fact, 5 countries - Bhutan, Ecuador, Scotland, the U.A.E., and Venezuela - now have appointed Ministers of Happiness, making it a public policy goal on par with providing quality education and affordable housing.

The U.A.E. is taking happiness even more seriously. In fact, last week the country's vice president (and ruler of Dubai) Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid announced a 100 day plan to promote happiness and positivity. This may be a worthwhile endeavor, but it has tones of Soviet cultural propaganda or 1984: “All government policies, programs and services must help instill happiness and positivity in society,” he declared

The U.A.E.'s happiness plan appears to be an innovative, if questionable, approach to governing. Public service centers will be transformed into “public happiness centres” with “dedicated employees to ensure happiness of all clients.” For this to succeed, however, it needs to be more than just service with a smile – the government will have to deliver on all the requests of citizens. If the bureaucracy fumbles paperwork, or denies a permit of some kind, the justified anger of the average citizen won’t be outweighed by having been treated politely or offered complimentary refreshments.

The plan also includes the promotion of positivity and happiness “as a lifestyle in the community,” the issuing of scientific and cultural publications (including a guide to customer happiness), and the development of benchmarks and ways to measure happiness. Left unsaid is what will happen if the numerical measurement of happiness don’t go up. (It would be hypocritical for Sheikh Mohammed to get upset in such a scenario.)

His broad justification for the plan is more than a bit exaggerated: “Since the dawn of history, happiness is all that humanity has sought.” But his more practical reasons are compelling, and right on the mark: “Focusing on happiness is both feasible and fully justified. ... Studies have shown that happy people produce more, live longer, and drive better economic development in their communities and countries.”

Furthermore, last month Sheikh Mohammed published an open letter saying he wanted to send a “clear message” to governments in the region and elsewhere about harnessing power “from within” to overcome hatred and intolerance, saying they need to “revise their roles.” Given the strife and hatreds in the Middle East, this emphasis on happiness is a welcome breath of fresh air. And it just might catch on.