To be honest, I could not have told you exactly where Dubai was when I got an invitation to the Global Dialogue for Happiness, but it sure peaked my interest. “The Minister of the State of Happiness Her Excellency Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi invites you to the first Global Dialogue for Happiness at the World Government Summit this February in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.” I had heard about the appointment of a Minister of State for Happiness, and that she was a woman. I wanted to go. Boy did I ever, but there was no way I could afford it. The work I do in the Happiness Movement is volunteer, unfunded and I scrape by just to meet basic costs. But then they said they would pay my way. I was in.

That was in 2017. I went to Dubai with some trepidation. I am, after all, a typical American in many ways. I have no sense of geography and while my intention is to keep an open mind, I see in myself an institutional bias regarding Muslim culture. So, really, I was scared.

I left Dubai in 2017 with my mind blown. It was blown again in 2018.

I have been working in the happiness movement since 2010. Back then I was Executive Director for Sustainable Seattle, the first organization to produce regional sustainability indicators.1 We had just issued our fourth set of indicators when I learned about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index. The GNH Index was inspired. It made indicators personal. Something I thought was missing from sustainability indicators. It married the individual with nature and other beings. I heard my calling. While my life began with bringing the Happiness Movement to communities, universities and governments, there has been a stumbling block impeding progress: a lack of evidence.2

A Short History of The Happiness Movement

Bhutan was the first government to start building evidence. Bhutan is a country about the size of Vermont that sits on the map between India and Tibet. If you zoom in on Bhutan with google maps, you will see it is entirely mountainous, with borders that end where the plains begin to its south. It is the first country to use a happiness metric to guide the national government in lieu of Gross Domestic Product. The King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is famous for saying “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”3 He was seventeen at the time. It was 1972. In 2006, he abdicated and Bhutan became a democratic monarchy. The creation of a GNH Commission with a GNH minister emerged. Two years later in 2008, Bhutan first measured the happiness of its country using a comprehensive measure that spanned economic, social, environmental and personal domains. Many other countries followed suit. Eight years later at the first Global Dialogue for Happiness, Bhutan’s Prime Minister announced they were using the happiness data to inform the country’s five-year plan.

Thus far, only Bhutan has demonstrated how to use happiness as a guide for government, that is, until now.

According to the World Happiness Report for 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the 20th happiest country on Earth, climbing from 21st in 2017.4 It was placed 28th in 2016, the same year that the Prime Minister of the UAE set the goal to be ranked among the top five happiest countries on Earth.5 Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland typically rotate the top five rankings.

But unlike these five happiness winners, the UAE is the only country that is transitioning from a government guided by economic growth to happiness in a manner that exemplifies the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the only legitimate object of good government.” If the UAE displaces one of the top five, the lack of evidence other governments cite for hesitating to transform their use of metrics and promulgation of policy may well be resolved.

Fig. 1 World Happiness Report 2018 Happiness Rankings

UAE Happiness Evidence Building

Soon after the appointment of the Minister of State for Happiness in the United Arab Emirates, a dynamic governmental structure emerged, marrying hierarchical, flat and holacratic elements.

The Minister of State for Happiness took her seat in the Prime Minister’s office (not a distinct cabinet) and was tasked with integrating happiness into every level of government, promoting the development of happiness skills in the community and developing metrics to measure happiness.6 Organizational and structural changes were made. Sixty government employees were trained and appointed CEOs of Happiness and Positivity. Their jobs are to implement national programs that are instrumental in raising happiness levels and to steward a cultural shift within government towards an orientation of happiness internally and externally.7

Within each government ministry and department, happiness councils were formed with the purpose of ensuring alignment across government departments so that today, if you were to check into the goings on of, for example, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, you would see their happiness charter and use of happiness metrics to measure success.8 While at the Global Dialogue for Happiness Summit, I heard on the grapevine that soon Ministries for Happiness in each national governmental department will be appointed.

Fig. 2 UAE Happiness Organizational Chart

Synchronous with organizational restructuring at the federal level were the formation of programs, signing of charters and gathering of resources.9 The Prime Minister signed a National Charter for Happiness.10 Soon afterwards, a cascade of Charters for Happiness were issued by government departments.11 A National Happiness and Positivity Programme was formed to deliver on six goals: harmonize government plans; provide incentives to public and private entities; propose policies and coordinate implementation; raise awareness about the importance of happiness and create a cultural shift; develop metrics; and, promote the UAE on a global scale.12 A Happiness Policy Manual was issued to help government employees form, assess and implement happiness policies, programs and projects.13 An online portal was created to engage community members in learning and volunteering.14 Efforts to develop metrics to measure happiness at different levels resulted in an indicator, called the Happiness Meter, to transform how government interacts with people, as well as an ongoing development of a wider measure of well-being to gauge the happiness of the entire population of the UAE.15 A happiness science and research department was opened at the UAE University to produce evidence for happiness policy makers.16

To learn and share at the international level, the Global Dialogue for Happiness is convened.17 At the first meeting, happiness movement leaders were brought together at roundtables to share insights and thoughts on the topics of measurements, policy, education and personal happiness.18 A Global Happiness Council was created with the editor of the World Happiness Report Jeffrey Sachs at its head. They authored and issued the World Happiness Policy Report, a companion piece to the World Happiness Report at the second Global Dialogue for Happiness. In addition, during the second dialogue, five countries (Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Portugal and Slovenia) joined the UAE in the formation of a Happiness Coalition with the purpose of sharing and learning from each other about how to improve people’s happiness through federal level metrics, policies and programs.19

To all of this you might ask, what exactly are the policies that the UAE has promulgated to improve people’s happiness?

Fig. 3 Happiness Programs in UAE

Smart +Happy = Dubai

The UAE is a federation of seven states, each with its own Emir. Dubai is the name shared by the state and city and both are the most populated in the UAE. An Emir is the highest ruler of a state. The Prime Minister of the UAE also holds the role of Emir of Dubai. Opportunities for synergy are not wasted.

Smart Dubai was launched in 2016. The mandate of the program is to make Dubai the happiest city on Earth. The program is led by H.E. Dr. Aisha bin Bishr.20 With the creation of Smart Dubai things quickly changed.

Staff in government and private sector entities were appointed as Happiness Champions to raise awareness, spearhead changes and measure the impact of changes.21 An online portal provides training modules to guide Happiness Champions.22 Eighty-four projects have been undertaken within sixteen programs.23 The Happiness Meter was implemented for all government departments, from the police to the cultural department, and then rolled out among the private sector. By 2017, the Happiness Meter had been used over six million times.24 The Smart Majlis (majlis means to council or a council) Program is a crowd-sourcing platform that yielded over 35,000 ideas in the first year.25 Ideas range from fixing park benches to window treatment that harnesses solar energy to the grid. People can copyright their ideas and the government responds to each idea with plans for implementation or a rational for declining.

Fig. 4 Smart Dubai Org Chart

A decision tool was developed to measure the well-being impact of a project, called Smart Happiness Project Evaluation Tool (SHAPE).26 It assesses, through a cost-benefit analysis, the impact on the economy, society, government, environment, people’s mobility and access to technology, and determines how easy it will be for people to use a service and the longevity of its benefits. If a project is found lacking, guidelines for redesigning are provided. It was initially rolled out for government with plans for its extension to the private sector.

Other projects involve the use of artificial intelligence to make it easier and faster for social entrepreneurs to attain business licenses.27 Perhaps not coincidentally, the UAE has seen a growth in social entrepreneurship, from large scale projects such as clean and renewable energy, eco-development, to medium sized enterprises that provide services such as retrofitting of buildings to meet green standards and social investment banking, to smaller businesses, such as organic farming and shared workspaces to encourage social entrepreneurship.28 The police and utility departments collaborated on the development of an app they called “Happy to Pay.”29 It allows people to pay bills and fines, understand how the money is used by different departments of government, and give input into how it should be allocated.30 The goal of the app is to turn bill and fine paying from a punitive interaction to an experience of contributing to the common good.

In 2018, the Global Dialogue for Happiness featured displays about the plans in store for Dubai using artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology, called Dubai 10X.31 Most projects set happiness as their main objective and metric for success. One program was genome banking for all citizens and residents with the application of AI to predict illness and propose strategies for safeguarding one’s health and well-being. Another is autonomous police stations for permitting and surveillance blimps for crime solving. There are plans to streamline charitable donations allowing donors to give directly to charities without going through a foundation. Plans are in place to open an investment market for free-zone companies (whereby blockchains are projected to fulfill compliance and regulatory functions). Public utilities will use AI to control and store renewable energy and transportation authorities have plans to track the life cycle of each person’s automobile. Self-driving vehicles are slated to be on roads within two years. Education programs that tailor curriculum to individual children and give them credit for developing life skills at home are in preparation, as are certificate programs for all ages to develop digital skills. AI is being developed to turn solid waste into energy and recycle waste water with the goal of turning Dubai into a waste free city.

These plans may seem impossible until you consider that just two years ago the country did not have happiness programs. Within one year UAE’s happiness score rose from 28 to 21 on the World Happiness Report scale and gained another level the following year. Time, and the data, will demonstrate if these and other programs make Dubai the happiest city on Earth and the UAE one of the happiest countries in the world.

What We Can and Can’t Learn from the UAE

There are several factors facilitating the awe-inspiring speed at which the UAE has adopted a happiness agenda. These factors are shared by Bhutan, also a nation with robust and functioning happiness programs and policies. Both nations are monarchies (although Bhutan recently became a democratic monarchy) and both have visionary leaders who are adored and admired by their citizens. The cultures in both are homogenous. One Islamic, the other Buddhist. Both nations are relatively small and exist in harsh environments. One a desert, the other high mountains. At first glance these factors may suggest that what these nations are doing could not be replicated in a democracy, or large nations with great cultural diversity. There are, however, many lessons to be learned.

The first lesson relates to the function of government to deliver transformation within government. Even in the short time span of the happiness movement, when efforts are initiated by elected officials they have suffered dissipation with a change in office. The lesson to be learned is that happiness efforts are best implemented by appointed rather than elected officials, with elected officials providing the resources and support to institutionalize happiness in government. This can be supported through the creation of an office, allocation of budgets, and institution of bureaucratic pathways for cooperation with other departments, such as statistics, planning, budgeting, community outreach, etc. If an elected official initiates the process, it behooves that person to transfer ownership to appointed civil servants to carry forward progress and ensure viability in the event of a change in office. Equally important is how the people who take ownership feel. The people who take ownership should feel inspired by it, feel it gives them a sense of purpose and be of the mindset that happiness is the purpose of government. This brings us to the second lesson.

The second lesson is concrened with common cultural values. Elementally, happiness is a shared human goal. In the words of Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. The desire to be happy transcends religious or political orientation. The adoption of happiness as the purpose of government is a cultural shift based on a value system that puts happiness and well-being above indiscriminant monetary gain and economic growth. Cultural shifts happen in every kind of nation, homogenous or diverse, small or large, environmentally harsh or fecund. The lesson to be learned is to emphasize the common value and goal of happiness. Differences can be resolved by focusing on representative data from a comprehensive happiness metric to tease out the basis for agreement over division. This is an admittedly geeky lesson, but a concept that can easily be understood and implemented with open access for policy makers and the public to happiness metrics and data.

A Recipe for Happiness in Your City, Town, State or Region

This last section shares a recipe for introducing happiness into your government. It is written for community organizers and policy makers looking for an action plan to bring to life the concept that the purpose of government is to secure people’s unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This section is written as a recipe. Like any recipe, how much of any one ingredient or how you combine them, changes depending on the climate. Thus, the author encourages readers to reach out to their organization to discuss how to adapt this recipe for the unique climate of your city, town, state or region.

Happiness Ingredients:

Awareness Raising

Community Engagement

Happiness Officer or Minister

Happiness Councils

Happiness Integration

Happiness Metrics and Data

Happiness Policy Screening Tool

Happiness Policies

How to mix the ingredients:

Awareness raising within the government is the first step. It is important to have a good understanding of the definition of happiness, purpose of your project, and goal of your effort before raising awareness. Begin with talks and trainings and distributing educational materials. You can find instructions on how to give happiness talks, educational materials for the happiness movement and a white paper on the happiness movement here:

Community engagement brings awareness raising and civic education. For this step a great deal of effort should be expended on two topics. First, the definition of happiness will need to be addressed, and it should be made clear that the term happiness is being used synonymously with well-being and quality of life, and that happiness encompasses the domains of the government, economy, environment, education, community and society as well as psychological and physical health. Second, it is important to make clear that the goal of government is to create the conditions for opportunities to pursue happiness, not to dictate actions or feelings of happiness. In some areas, it will be better to use the terms quality of life or well-being instead of happiness. In the UAE, within a year of appointment, the ministerial title was expanded to Minister of State for Happiness and Well-being. This step often entails town forums and community meetings as well as online portals for awareness-raising along with soliciting ideas and volunteers. This step should also include providing resources and tools that bridge personal happiness as well as community and societal well-being. An array of helpful resources are available here (with attribution):

Appointing a happiness officer or minister within government is the third step. Best practice to date is to appoint someone who is already a government employee. With the appointment of a happiness position, resources should be allocated including budgets for community outreach, development of tools and resources and other activities. This can be done as part of the integration of happiness into existing departments and roles. You can find a model job description here:

The creation of a Happiness Council is the fourth step. Happiness Councils are composed of people across government departments. The Happiness Office or Minister acts as a guide, coordinator and resource for the councils. The job of a Happiness Council is to form, reform and adapt government strategies, policies, programs and projects to ensure they contribute towards the new understanding of the happiness and well-being of the people, and to oversee their implementation, monitoring, measurement and evaluation. With the creation of councils, time and budget should be allocated to incentivize their work.

Integration of happiness is the fifth step, and the work of the all people in government. Integration of happiness into government entails a systems approach. It is the job of the Happiness Councils, with support from the Office or Minister for Happiness to educate, train, enable and empower staff to integrate happiness into all they do. Integration should include the use of happiness metrics to measure the satisfaction or happiness of people with all government service or program, and guidance for assessing and adapting governmental projects, policies and programs. These happiness metrics should be used to inform the continuation or redesign of government functions.

Measuring happiness is the sixth step. Measuring happiness should be conducted on at least two levels: a simple scale for assessing people’s satisfaction with government services, and wider measures of well-being using subjective survey instrument and objective metrics for the entire population. A satisfaction with government services measurement should be used in all interactions between the government and people, from licensing to permitting. The well-being of entire populations should be measured using a subjective survey instrument through a random sampling. At the same time, a convenience sampling should be gathered allowing people who are not chosen through the random sampling to opt-in. In addition to subjective data, a compendium of objective indicators already available in governmental departments should be gathered to give a balanced picture and reveal greater depth of information. The subjective and objective data can be used to understand which segments of a population are thriving and which need help and services. Happiness and well-being measurement tools are also a useful tool for awareness raising and community engagement because they help people understand how happiness is defined and provide an opportunity to assess their own happiness and well-being. A scientifically validated comprehensive happiness index is available here: and the methodology and data here:

A screening tool is the seventh step. A screening tool is used to assess a policy, project or program’s impact on happiness and well-being. In Bhutan, GNH screening tools for policies and projects are used to assess the impact of a policy under consideration. The screening tool should be introduced through training sessions and in conjunction with analysis and assessment of the data collected in the sixth step. A Happiness Screening Tool based on the Bhutan model is available for adoption and adaptation here:

The eight step is the promulgation of happiness policies. Happiness policies should be developed based on community input and happiness scores, then screened, adapted with the impact measured using a happiness index. Analysis of the data gathered in step six and the screening tool from step seven should be used to help policy makers decide which policies, programs and projects to adapt or alter, and whether to form new ones. Ideas and resources for developing and adapting happiness policies are available here:

Calling for Happiness Leadership

The UAE’s strategy and speed of adoption of happiness tools and metrics into government is breathtaking and inspiring. But the UAE is not the only government that has made headway and because of other efforts, many at the local level, some successful, some not, the UAE has helped glean important lessons and jumpstart its efforts. It is my belief and hope that those of us at the local level can seize the opportunity to build upon the mounting evidence that happiness can and should be the purpose of government. It is my dear hope to work with you to bring this important agenda to the forefront in your community, city, or country.


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Laura Musikanski

Laura Musikanski is the executive director of the Happiness, a nonprofit providing resources and tools in the Happiness and Well-being Movement since 2010. She deeply believes...

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