Jan 25, 2020 - World

A Davos conversation on maximizing happiness, not GDP

Illustration of a smiling woman with the Swiss Alps behind her, looking like a stock chart
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

DAVOS, Switzerland — At the head table Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and the evening's host, was surrounded by dignitaries and leading experts on a controversial science: measuring happiness.

  • Up for debate was whether governments should seek to make their citizens happy, and whether they could satisfactorily measure their success in doing so.

Axios listened intently from a corner table, accompanied by a delightful Italian red:

  • First up was Dan Gilbert, a psychologist from Harvard, who said of course you can trust people to tell you whether they're happy — indeed, the most basic human interactions depend on it.
  • Next came Robert Shiller, a Yale economist and the evening's skeptic. He said happiness oscillates based on temporary circumstances, and joked he'd be happier upon the arrival of desert (pistachio ice cream with mango sorbet).
  • Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, reflected on why his people are so happy: social mobility, environmental conservation, national culture, good governance.
  • Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former Polish president, warned as "the only one in this room who was a member of the Communist Party" that happiness as ideology can be dangerous.
  • Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of Oxford noted that several leaders have recently set happiness as their objective —nearly all of them women.

The bottom line: Perhaps it was the wine, but I stepped out into the Alpine air convinced that in Davoses to come, there will be less about GDP and more about happiness.

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