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The brand new documentary Agent of Happiness follows Bhutanese bureaucrats who survey folks about their way of thinking. From proper: director Dorottya Zurbó, happiness brokers Amber Kumar Gurung and Guna Raj Kuikel, and director Arun Bhattarai.


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The brand new documentary Agent of Happiness follows Bhutanese bureaucrats who survey folks about their way of thinking. From proper: director Dorottya Zurbó, happiness brokers Amber Kumar Gurung and Guna Raj Kuikel, and director Arun Bhattarai.


Amber Kumar Gurung may very well be happier. 5 factors happier, to be exact.

Gurung lives in Bhutan, the small, predominantly Buddhist nation with an specific, constitutionally-mandated objective of accelerating gross nationwide happiness. His job is to assist the nation, usually hailed because the happiest place on Earth, boil down the happiness of its inhabitants to a single quantity. Agent of Happiness, a brand new documentary movie that debuted at Sundance in January, follows Gurung round Bhutan as he asks all types of individuals 148 totally different questions designed to get at one elementary query — are you content?

Among the questions are direct. Within the movie, Gurung asks a younger girl on her farm: “How completely happy and happy are you together with your life, on a scale from 1 to 10?”

She responds with an emphatic “10,” since her cow (named “Lemo”) gave start the day earlier than. “We now have a cow for milking too. I can promote the milk, my life will change into simpler,” she stated. “I used to be extraordinarily completely happy.”

A lot of the different questions get on the wide selection of bodily, emotional, non secular and environmental components that form happiness. What number of goats do you’ve got? How usually do you meditate? Do you’re feeling egocentric? Jealous? Offended?

Gurung tabulates all these solutions, that are mixed right into a single quantity from 0 to 10 that, in concept, encapsulates a person’s general happiness. One man with three wives scored a happiness stage of 10. A latest widower received a 7, with non secular contentment offsetting his grief. A teenage lady who worries about her mom’s alcoholism scored a 4, questioning “why such a tragic soul like myself was born on this completely happy place.”

In a scene from the movie, happiness brokers Guna Raj Kuikel (left) and Amber Kumar Gurung (far proper) ask people a sequence of inquiries to measure how completely happy they are surely.


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In a scene from the movie, happiness brokers Guna Raj Kuikel (left) and Amber Kumar Gurung (far proper) ask people a sequence of inquiries to measure how completely happy they are surely.


The movie is an intimate portrait of the big variety of human expertise and illustrates how happiness could be formed by forces exterior our management corresponding to poverty, circumstances of start or tradition. Because the viewer sees the richness of every character’s story boiled all the way down to a single quantity, a pure query arises: Is it even doable to quantify one thing as subjective, ineffable and numerous as human happiness?

In response to many researchers, sure.

“The examine of happiness has made main strides over the previous 40 years or so,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist on the College of British Columbia. “Happiness researchers have truly been actually profitable in taking these seemingly ineffable ideas and turning them into metrics that we will analyze.”

However researchers disagree about exactly how greatest to measure happiness, and whether or not it is higher to mix many measures, as Bhutan does, or to easily ask folks whether or not they’re completely happy.

How Bhutan measures gross nationwide happiness

Bhutan’s trendy pursuit of nationwide happiness started within the Seventies, when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck proclaimed: “Gross nationwide happiness is extra essential than gross home product.”

The assertion got here as globalization loomed over the long-isolated nation, says Michael Givel, a comparative political scientist at College of Oklahoma who has completed analysis in Bhutan. For hundreds of years Bhutan imposed a strict self-isolation, largely banning foreigners from getting into the mountainous nation.

“The rulers of Bhutan acknowledged that the nation wanted to stability its conventional Buddhist values with trendy, secular points, like well being care and dwelling wages,” he stated. Gross nationwide happiness turned the lodestar that guided coverage choices.

However it wasn’t till 2008 that the nation started truly measuring its residents’ happiness.

Questions cowl 9 domains deemed related to happiness, together with psychological well-being, well being, schooling, good governance, neighborhood vitality and dwelling requirements.

Whereas happiness researchers agree that each one of those components can contribute to happiness, their relative contributions are debated. Bhutan treats every area equally, which means an individual’s rating in psychological well-being counts simply as a lot towards their general happiness as their rating in neighborhood vitality.

“It is a very collectivist society” with totally different concepts than Western societies about what contributes to happiness, says Robert Waldinger, a happiness researcher at Harvard College who can be a Zen priest. The survey tries to seize these variations by wanting by means of “a number of home windows on well-being,” he stated.

Inside a given area, an individual’s rating is set by a number of indicators, which aren’t all handled equally. In psychological well-being, for instance, scores of life satisfaction and spirituality are extra closely weighted than constructive and detrimental feelings. Mixed, these scores depend the identical towards a person’s general happiness as their scores in, say, the time use class, which captures the standard of labor and sleep.

All instructed, individuals are positioned into 4 classes: deeply completely happy, extensively completely happy, narrowly completely happy and sad.

A contented nation? Boosting gross nationwide happiness

Agent of Happiness provides a view into each completely happy and sad lives of individuals in Bhutan, revealing how the totally different measured classes can promote or intrude with happiness.

The Agent of Happiness himself, Gurung, is not terribly completely happy. The single 40-something lives together with his sick mom and longs to get married. However his prospects are restricted by his lack of citizenship, which was revoked due to his Nepali heritage when he was 2 years outdated, throughout a interval of tense ethnic conflicts. Whereas he treats every particular person he interviews with curiosity and care, he appears considerably ambivalent about his job itself, motivated extra by a want for regular work than a deep identification with Bhutan’s mission. The movie ends by revealing Gurung’s happiness rating, 5, as he dances towards a beautiful mountain backdrop, recording a video to ship to his new girlfriend.

Gurung and his colleagues accomplished the final Gross Nationwide Happiness survey in 2022, revealing that 9.5% of individuals in Bhutan had been deeply completely happy, 38.6% had been extensively completely happy, 45.5% had been narrowly completely happy, and 6.4% had been sad. The proportion of people that had been deeply or extensively completely happy elevated since 2010, leaping from 40.9% to 48.1%, a rise the federal government says stems partially from its dedication to rising gross nationwide happiness.

Many happiness researchers have praised Bhutan’s efforts as serving to to push different international locations to look past conventional financial indicators, like GDP, in assessing a nation’s progress.

“[GDP] is measuring what folks’s materials manufacturing is, not what they give it some thought,” says John Helliwell, an economist on the College of British Columbia. “Bhutan put the thought of gross nationwide happiness on the market, introduced it to the [United Nations] and received folks to take it extra critically,” he says. “I give them loads of credit score.”

That stated, Helliwell and others argue that Bhutan’s methodology of figuring out gross nationwide happiness (which is analogous to others, together with the Canadian Index of Wellbeing) makes too many assumptions about what makes somebody completely happy. That might make it much less dependable for truly measuring happiness and the forces that form it.

“The one smart method to measure whether or not lives are being improved or not is to ask folks concerning the high quality of their lives,” stated Helliwell. “In some ways, the only reply seems to be essentially the most effectively supported, scientifically.”

Less complicated methods of measuring happiness

Happiness researchers usually outline happiness as “subjective well-being,” a time period coined within the Eighties. It has an emotional element — the stability of constructive and detrimental feelings an individual experiences — and an evaluative element, which boils all the way down to how happy an individual is with their life.

The latter element, life satisfaction, is particularly essential to researchers since they are saying it will get at a deeper type of happiness than the ever-changing churn of fleeting emotions.

“It is a longer-term factor, principally, ‘is my life good?'” says Waldinger. Momentary detrimental emotions could be value it, so to talk, in the event that they’re a part of pursuing a extra significant objective, like elevating a baby or working a marathon.

Whereas there are, maybe, infinite methods to dwell a worthwhile life, researchers have settled on just a few most important measures of the extent to which an individual thinks they’re dwelling one.

The Satisfaction with Life Scale, created by psychologist Ed Diener and colleagues within the mid-Eighties, asks people to price their stage of settlement, on a scale of 1 to 7, with 5 statements associated to life satisfaction, corresponding to “I’m happy with my life,” and “If I may dwell my life over, I’d change nearly nothing.”

The polling agency Gallup asks folks to think about a 10-rung ladder, with 1 representing the worst doable life and 10 representing the very best life, and asks them to price the place they stand at this time.

“What’s actually neat about these questions is that as a lot as you may assume happiness is an amorphous subject that is actually onerous to measure, folks can reply these questions,” says Dunn. “Their solutions develop into actually significant” since they have a tendency to correlate with different metrics, corresponding to studies from household and associates.

Crucially, these sorts of measures “are fully freed from any assumptions about what issues for happiness,” says Dunn.

“It would not ask folks about how rich they’re or what number of cows they’ve” and assume the influence they’ve on happiness, she says. “It simply measures how folks really feel about their lives.”

These sorts of value-free metrics differ from Bhutan’s methodology, which incorporates so many variables in its happiness index that it turns into statistically difficult to parse which circumstances actually matter for happiness.

Since 2012, Helliwell and others have used Gallup’s single metric to supply the World Happiness Report, a broad take a look at the happiness of individuals in additional than 150 international locations. The information enable a direct comparability amongst international locations: In 2023, Finland, Denmark and Iceland had been the happiest international locations, whereas Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Afghanistan had been the least completely happy. Bhutan wasn’t a part of this yr’s survey, however in 2019 it ranked ninety fifth.

Past merely rating international locations, the World Happiness Report has yielded insights into what promotes, or impedes, happiness on a nationwide stage. Maybe unsurprisingly, GDP and life expectancy are essential variables, however social assist, freedom to make life decisions, generosity and perceptions of corruption are additionally main determinants of nationwide happiness.

Regardless of the metric, the act of assessing nationwide happiness is essential for making an attempt to enhance it. However even making the trouble to measure happiness could make a distinction.

“Greater than the survey itself, the act of happiness brokers knocking on folks’s doorways and coming into their houses, asking in the event that they had been completely happy or not – it made folks really feel cared for by the federal government,” says Arun Bhattarai, one of many filmmakers. “There have been lots of people who had been ready to pour their coronary heart out to someone,” he says, “and Amber was an excellent listener.”

Jonathan Lambert is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who covers science, well being and coverage. He is been a employees author at Grid and Science Information and has contributed to NPR, Nature Information, Quanta Journal and the Dallas Morning Information. He holds a Grasp’s diploma in evolutionary biology from Cornell College. Comply with him on twitter @evolambert, or on bluesky @jonlambert.bsky.social.

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