Bhutan “happiness” conference: True well-being for animals, people

How much do animals contribute to happiness?Can you think of a time that an animal made you happy?  Maybe it was snuggling with your own dog or cat, hearing a familiar bird song while hiking in the woods, or seeing wildlife roaming free on the plains of your own or a foreign country?

How exactly can an economic system value that happy experience?

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures economic activity over a period of time (often it is measured in three-month periods).   In those examples of how animals make us happy, the time we spend with our companion animals does not contribute to GDP like the time we spend at work, the value of the tree where the songbird nests does not contribute to GDP the way it would if it were cut down and sold as lumber in a store, and the value of the open plains where the wild animals roam would contribute more to GDP if it were developed into a shopping mall. 

After 20 years working in conservation, animal welfare and international development in Washington DC, I have seen firsthand that trying to define the value of nature and wildlife in monetary terms, though often necessary to get support from policy makers, has limitations. 

Last week I was honored to present a paper called “Beyond GDP: True Wellbeing for Animals and People” on the opening day of an International Conference on Gross National Happiness in Bhutan. 

Bhutan is a small kingdom in the Himalayas, with a rich history and a special role in our modern world –a model of a different way of defining “success.”  When Bhutan first opened its borders in the early 1970s, the young King was asked how he planned to increase the Gross National Product of Bhutan and the income of his people, and he replied that he was more concerned about the “Gross National Happiness” of its citizens.

Since then, the government of Bhutan has studied what factors contribute to happiness in society and has developed nine domains of wellbeing:

  1. good governance,
  2. community vitality,
  3. living standards,
  4. ecological diversity and resilience,
  5. cultural diversity and resilience,
  6. time use,
  7. health,
  8. education, and
  9. psychological wellbeing.

Bhutan’s model is so compelling that the United Nations even adopted a resolution in 2012 (Resolution 65/309) encouraging nations to adopt happiness and wellbeing indicators in their own policies.

In the IFAW paper I presented, my coauthors and I reviewed how good animal welfare and conservation contribute to positive human happiness and wellbeing in each of the nine domains of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. 

When we face a crisis like the current elephant poaching crisis, in which we are losing an elephant every 15 minutes to ivory poachers, we need to review how our current economic  system has led to the poaching crisis and how changing that paradigm might be the only solution.  For example, elephants have a dollar value to the communities that surround them, by bringing in ecotourism money.  They also have a value to the ecosystem, some of which can be measured in dollars.

But so much of their value is beyond their contribution to GDP – cultural, spiritual and intrinsic values are all beyond measure in dollars.

And if we lost them, we would lose so much more than we can measure in money.   

With the emphasis of our current system on short term economic activity where growth is prized, the sale of ivory trinkets that no one needs counts towards GDP more than the lives of wild elephants.  In addition, our global system has created wide global income inequalities, where poor people kill wild elephants out of desperation and feed a market for ivory for rich people to show their wealth, power and prestige.  This is just one example of a system that does not support the happiness and wellbeing of people, animals nor the sustainability of life on this planet. 

Our research on the subject is clear.  Doing the right thing for animals is better for them and better for people in each of the nine domains of Gross National Happiness.

We need a new system that measures and promotes the wellbeing of people and the planet and that must include measuring and valuing the wellbeing of animals.  This message is especially important now.  We are facing the imminent extinction of some of the most amazing species on the planet because of human pressure on their habitats in the name of growth and because their body parts are worth more to us than their lives.     

Gross National Happiness is Bhutan’s way of offering a positive alternative to GDP, and perhaps we can begin to find an alternative that is right for America, one that prizes all the values of animals, people and the planet.  Having a positive solution to offer in this time of crisis is critical to achieve the change that we—and the animals that make us so happy—really need.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
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Faye Cuevas, Esq.
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Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
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Jimmiel Mandima at IFAW
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Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
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Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
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