Writing to a friend in April 1776, the future US president John Adams suggested that the best form of government was one "which communicates ease, comfort, security or happiness to the greatest number of persons and in the greatest degree, is the best”. Along with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness then became one of the inalienable rights in the US Declaration of Independence produced by Mr Adams and others a few months later.
I was remembering this phrase as I drove from Saadiyat Island (translation: “the place of happiness”) to the post office (motto: “we deliver happiness”) to send a greetings card (the message: “happy birthday”).
At some point in the 19th and 20th centuries, the promotion of happiness slipped off the to-do list for governments. But it is now firmly back on the global and national policy agenda. A growing number of countries are joining the United Arab Emirates in appointing ministers to promote happiness or wellbeing or – as in the recent case in the UK – to tackle issues such as loneliness. Nations now compete for places on the World Happiness Index, currently topped by Norway, or jostle for the top spot on the Happy Planet Index, currently led by Costa Rica. Some governments have "nudge" units, which provide pointers showing where to go to increase wellbeing. Cass Sunstein of Harvard likens these to a GPS for life, with the best examples being schemes to automatically enroll people in retirement plans, simplify forms for accessing financial help and inform the public about how the energy they are using compares to their neighbours.
It is not just a government or academic effort. Authors such as Meik Wiking are moving the issue from academic debates to the bookshop. His bestseller The Little Book of Lykke looks at how 20 different societies promote and measure wellbeing. Meanwhile, digital platforms such as Happify aim to increase positivity and reduce stress levels and depression. Companies such as Hitachi are collecting data from wearable technology to measure employee happiness. There is even a candidate for the world's happiest man, a French biochemist turned Buddhist monk, Mathieu Ricard.
Some countries are even building their soft power brand around wellbeing. India, which will be represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at this week's World Government Summit in Dubai, has a minister of yoga, ayurveda and homeopathy and has initiated an annual international yoga day. And two years ago, the UAE appointed its own Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing, Ohood Al Roumi, whose remit is to help make the country among the happiest in the world.
There is, of course, a danger that promotion of happiness and wellbeing becomes a bit like the Lego movie, with smiling citizens and colleagues reassuring each other with forced jollity that "everything is awesome". And many fear that digital technology will increase inequality and divide us into digital overlords and slaves. We are already seeing how technology can override human instincts and alter the way that our hands and minds interact with inanimate objects, a three-year-old with an iPad is the 21st century equivalent of an early Paleolithic hominid reshaping stone tools. Maybe digitalisation is even damaging our souls and our ability to think. We risk being so connected that we lose our ability to truly connect.
That is why it is so important that pioneers and scientists back the agenda with hard evidence and that policymakers build the credibility needed to bring more countries on board and to genuinely engage people in the effort.
The good news is that the evidence is starting to emerge. Credible studies have shown that compassionate people are happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical and more flexible. Measuring wellbeing fundamentally improves policymaking. More flexible working arrangements increase productivity and profitability. Small increases in therapy can disproportionately reduce mental illness and increase happiness: each dollar of mental health expenditure leads to more than double the amount ($2.50) in GDP. And crucially, there is a correlation between connectedness, perseverance and higher school test scores. There is a proven link, therefore, between wellbeing and academic attainment and between happiness and productivity.
The effort will be given further heft with a report released in Dubai this week as part of the global dialogue on happiness, which dominated WGS talks yesterday. Led by Jeffrey Sachs, more than 60 international scientists and experts have been looking in detail at how to develop policies that build happiness in schools, homes and communities across the world. They have been highlighting extraordinary pioneers from Costa Rica to Scandinavia and set out a blueprint for further improvement. This could mark the moment when the international community starts to say that the wellbeing of citizens is central to how we organise ourselves as a global society.
Long before Mr Adams, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was telling his students that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim of human existence”. That might sound slightly selfish to our modern ears. But when countries like the US are becoming wealthier but less happy, helping people be happier is surely as noble an aim for society today as it was for Mr Adams and Aristotle. Set aside that well-honed 21st century cynicism for a moment and imagine a global happiness movement that puts more power in the hands of the individual citizen, underpinned by toleration, fairness, reason and curiosity. That would be a pretty serious business indeed.
Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, a visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age