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Are you happy? New film follows a Bhutan bureaucrat who asks 148 questions to find out

The new documentary <em>Agent of Happiness</em> follows Bhutanese bureaucrats who survey people about their state of mind. From left: director Dorottya Zurbó, happiness agents Amber Kumar Gurung and Guna Raj Kuikel, and director Arun Bhattarai.
DDA
The new documentary Agent of Happiness follows Bhutanese bureaucrats who survey people about their state of mind. From left: director Dorottya Zurbó, happiness agents Amber Kumar Gurung and Guna Raj Kuikel, and director Arun Bhattarai.

Amber Kumar Gurung could be happier. Five points happier, to be precise.

Gurung lives in Bhutan, the small, predominantly Buddhist country with an explicit, constitutionally-mandated goal of increasing gross national happiness. His job is to help the country, often hailed as the happiest place on Earth, boil down the happiness of its population to a single number. Agent of Happiness, a new documentary film that debuted at Sundance in January, follows Gurung around Bhutan as he asks all sorts of people 148 different questions designed to get at one fundamental question — are you happy?

Some of the questions are direct. In the film, Gurung asks a young woman on her farm: "How happy and satisfied are you with your life, on a scale from zero to 10?"

She responds with an emphatic "10," since her cow (named "Lemo") gave birth the day before. "We now have a cow for milking too. I can sell the milk, my life will become easier," she said. "I was extremely happy."

Most of the other questions get at the wide range of physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental factors that shape happiness. How many goats do you have? How often do you meditate? Do you feel selfish? Jealous? Angry?

Gurung tabulates all these answers, which are combined into a single number from 0 to 10 that, in theory, encapsulates an individual's overall happiness. One man with three wives scored a happiness level of 10. A recent widower got a 7, with religious contentment offsetting his grief. A teenage girl who worries about her mother's alcoholism scored a 4, wondering "why such a sad soul like myself was born in this happy place."

In a scene from the film, happiness agents Guna Raj Kuikel (left) and Amber Kumar Gurung (far right) ask folks a series of questions to measure how happy they really are.
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DDA
In a scene from the film, happiness agents Guna Raj Kuikel (left) and Amber Kumar Gurung (far right) ask folks a series of questions to measure how happy they really are.

The film is an intimate portrait of the wide variety of human experience and illustrates how happiness can be shaped by forces outside our control such as poverty, circumstances of birth or culture. As the viewer sees the richness of each character's story boiled down to a single number, a natural question arises: Is it even possible to quantify something as subjective, ineffable and diverse as human happiness?

According to many researchers, yes.

"The study of happiness has made major strides over the past 40 years or so," says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. "Happiness researchers have actually been really successful in taking these seemingly ineffable concepts and turning them into metrics that we can analyze."

But researchers disagree about precisely how best to measure happiness, and whether it's better to combine many measures, as Bhutan does, or to simply ask people whether they're happy.

How Bhutan measures gross national happiness

Bhutan's modern pursuit of national happiness began in the 1970s, when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck proclaimed: "Gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product."

The statement came as globalization loomed over the long-isolated country, says Michael Givel, a comparative political scientist at University of Oklahoma who has done research in Bhutan. For centuries Bhutan imposed a strict self-isolation, largely banning foreigners from entering the mountainous country.

"The rulers of Bhutan recognized that the country needed to balance its traditional Buddhist values with modern, secular issues, like health care and living wages," he said. Gross national happiness became the lodestar that guided policy decisions.

But it wasn't until 2008 that the country began actually measuring its citizens' happiness.

Questions cover nine domains deemed relevant to happiness, including psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, community vitality and living standards.

While happiness researchers agree that all of these factors can contribute to happiness, their relative contributions are debated. Bhutan treats each domain equally, meaning a person's score in psychological well-being counts just as much toward their overall happiness as their score in community vitality.

"It's a very collectivist society" with different ideas than Western societies about what contributes to happiness, says Robert Waldinger, a happiness researcher at Harvard University who is also a Zen priest. The survey tries to capture those differences by looking through "multiple windows on well-being," he said.

Within a given domain, a person's score is determined by several indicators, which are not all treated equally. In psychological well-being, for example, ratings of life satisfaction and spirituality are more heavily weighted than positive and negative emotions. Combined, those ratings count the same toward an individual's overall happiness as their scores in, say, the time use category, which captures the quality of work and sleep.

All told, people are placed into four categories: deeply happy, extensively happy, narrowly happy and unhappy.

A happy country? Boosting gross national happiness

Agent of Happiness offers a view into both happy and unhappy lives of people in Bhutan, revealing how the different measured categories can promote or interfere with happiness.

The Agent of Happiness himself, Gurung, isn't terribly happy. The unmarried 40-something lives with his sick mother and longs to get married, but his prospects are limited by his lack of citizenship. While he treats each person he interviews with interest and care, he seems somewhat ambivalent about his job itself. The film ends by revealing Gurung's happiness score, 5, as he dances against a gorgeous mountain backdrop, recording a video to send to his new girlfriend.

Gurung and his colleagues completed the last Gross National Happiness survey in 2022, revealing that 9.5% of people in Bhutan were deeply happy, 38.6% were extensively happy, 45.5% were narrowly happy, and 6.4% were unhappy. The proportion of people who were deeply or extensively happy increased since 2010, jumping from 40.9% to 48.1%, an increase the government says stems in part from its commitment to increasing gross national happiness.

Many happiness researchers have praised Bhutan's efforts as helping to push other countries to look beyond traditional economic indicators, like GDP, in assessing a nation's progress.

"[GDP] is measuring what people's material production is, not what they think about it," says John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia. "Bhutan put the idea of gross national happiness out there, brought it to the [United Nations] and got people to take it more seriously," he says. "I give them a lot of credit."

That said, Helliwell and others argue that Bhutan's method of determining gross national happiness (which is similar to others, including the Canadian Index of Wellbeing) makes too many assumptions about what makes someone happy. That could make it less reliable for actually measuring happiness and the forces that shape it.

"The only sensible way to measure whether lives are being improved or not is to ask people about the quality of their lives," said Helliwell. "In many ways, the simplest answer turns out to be the most well supported, scientifically."

Simpler ways of measuring happiness

Happiness researchers often define happiness as "subjective well-being," a term coined in the 1980s. It has an emotional component — the balance of positive and negative emotions a person experiences — and an evaluative component, which boils down to how satisfied a person is with their life.

The latter component, life satisfaction, is especially important to researchers since they say it gets at a deeper form of happiness than the ever-changing churn of fleeting feelings.

"It's a longer-term thing, basically, 'is my life good?'" says Waldinger. Momentary negative feelings can be worth it, so to speak, if they're part of pursuing a more meaningful goal, like raising a child or running a marathon.

While there are, perhaps, infinite ways to live a worthwhile life, researchers have settled on a few main measures of the extent to which a person thinks they're living one.

The Satisfaction with Life Scale, created by psychologist Ed Diener and colleagues in the mid-1980s, asks individuals to rate their level of agreement, on a scale of 1 to 7, with five statements related to life satisfaction, such as "I am satisfied with my life," and "If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing."

The polling firm Gallup asks people to imagine a 10-rung ladder, with 1 representing the worst possible life and 10 representing the best possible life, and asks them to rate where they stand today.

"What's really neat about these questions is that as much as you might think happiness is an amorphous topic that's really hard to measure, people can answer these questions," says Dunn. "Their answers turn out to be really meaningful" since they tend to correlate with other metrics, such as reports from family and friends.

Crucially, these kinds of measures "are completely free of any assumptions about what matters for happiness," says Dunn.

"It doesn't ask people about how wealthy they are or how many cows they have" and assume the impact they have on happiness, she says. "It just measures how people feel about their lives."

These kinds of value-free metrics differ from Bhutan's method, which includes so many variables in its happiness index that it becomes statistically challenging to parse which circumstances really matter for happiness.

Since 2012, Helliwell and others have used Gallup's single metric to produce the World Happiness Report, a broad look at the happiness of people in more than 150 countries. The data allow a direct comparison among countries: In 2023, Finland, Denmark and Iceland were the happiest countries, while Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Afghanistan were the least happy. Bhutan wasn't part of this year's survey, but in 2019 it ranked 95th.

Beyond simply ranking countries, the World Happiness Report has yielded insights into what promotes, or impedes, happiness on a nationwide level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, GDP and life expectancy are important variables, but social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption are also major determinants of national happiness.

Whatever the metric, the act of assessing nationwide happiness is crucial for trying to improve it. But even making the effort to measure happiness can make a difference.

"More than the survey itself, the act of happiness agents knocking on people's doors and coming into their homes, asking if they were happy or not – it made people feel cared for by the government," says Arun Bhattarai, one of the filmmakers. "There were a lot of people who were waiting to pour their heart out to somebody," he says, "and Amber was a very good listener."

Jonathan Lambert is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who covers science, health and policy. He's been a staff writer at Grid and Science News and has contributed to NPR, Nature News, Quanta Magazine and the Dallas Morning News. He holds a Master's degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University. Follow him on twitter @evolambert, or on bluesky @jonlambert.bsky.social.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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