Happiness and the SDGs

January 15, 2016
Editor @17Goals

17Goals would like to welcome our newest organizational partner, Global Action Plan International, a leading NGO in the global sustainability movement for 25 years, empowering people to change their lives, businesses, schools, teaching methods … please check out their remarkable and diverse work at their website. And to kick off that new relationship we offer a thoughtful “Perspective” from GAP director Marilyn Mehlmann, reflecting on the relationship of the SDGs to the growing global movement to put the advancement of human happiness, rather than simply economic growth, at the heart of our national development planning. The nation of Bhutan has long been a role model in this regard, and her remarks were delivered to the King of Bhutan at a conference late last year.

Conscious Lifestyle and the UN SDGs
in relation to the concept of Gross National Happiness

A contribution to the colloquium in celebration of the
birthday of HVM the 4th King of Bhutan


Marilyn Mehlmann of GAP International speaking in Bhutan

Marilyn Mehlmann of GAP International speaking in Bhutan

The Sustainable Development Goals recently adopted by the United Nations have received both praise and criticism. Certainly they represent something new in international relations. The praise generally concerns their potential use as both indicators and promoters of a more inclusive and radical concept of sustainable development: under the right circumstances they could give global impetus to the movement away from money as the prime measure of national success, as exemplified in GNH. At the other end of the spectrum they may also speed the adoption of more conscious lifestyles by the affluent. How might these two opportunities be realized, and support each other?

What’s new about the SDGs?

Unlike almost all UN resolutions since the Declaration of Human Rights, the SDGs are intended to apply to all countries, worldwide. The Millenium Development Goals, their predecessors, were still to some extent couched in neo-colonial terms: most of the changes needed to reach the goals were to be undertaken by poor countries, with the rich countries in the best case paying the bill.

Another potential break-through is the way in which the 17 SDG goals[1] are interwoven and interdependent: they are all needed, if any are to truly succeed. It remains to be seen whether this break-through is in fact manifested, or whether – as in so many arenas – the drive to separate and sub-optimize proves stronger than the drive to synthesize.

A particular risk in the case of the SDGs concerns goal no. 8: “Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.” Partly, it is a curiously Western notion that paid employment is not only positive but a ‘human right’; a better phrasing might have been “Promote decent livelihoods for all” (but then where is the difference from the goal to eradicate poverty?). The concern is partly that this formulation opens the door to a particularly pernicious trap that has already bedevilled ‘sustainable development’ for several decades: the mistaken idea that environmental and social sustainability are secondary to economic sustainability and thus need to wait until ‘enough’ money has been acquired or set aside to invest in them. Nothing could be farther from the truth: a lack of attention to environmental and social development rapidly erodes the basis for ‘inclusive and sustainable’ economics.

Let us be vigilant on this point. If the targets for SDG 8 are pursued relentlessly without regard to the others, our levels of resource use, climate change and pollution will wipe out our societies long before they can stabilize.

On the other hand, the set of 17 goals could and will hopefully be regarded as a systemic whole where no action towards any goal is ‘allowed’ to cause degradation in regard to another goal – a rejection of sub-optimization in favour of a holistic view, as exemplified in the concept of Gross National Happiness. In that case we may indeed finally have arrived at a powerful instrument for positive and rapid global change.

Measuring national success or progress

Oliver Greenfield, coordinator of the global Green Economy Coalition, points out that the SDGs open a way for nations to get beyond money as a measure of success, at the same time as they open a new way for business to get beyond profit as the major criterion.

In this way the SDGs may be viewed as a response to the initiative from Bhutan to introduce a measure of national success or progress that is closer to the needs and hearts of the people than GNP and similar monetary measures.

Conscious lifestyles and happiness

If – as we can no doubt agree – the deepest sources of happiness are to be found within ourselves, nonetheless external factors do play a role. It is, for instance, much more difficult to find happiness if you see your children dying for lack of food, water, or health care; even more so, if you see that others are enjoying those same benefits that you lack. A strong sense of injustice can undermine even strong will and practice of humility.

The potential of the SDGs is to enable people – and not least affluent people – to better understand how all things are connected; how our everyday actions and choices resonate throughout the world; and how, indeed, through an increasingly prodigal lifestyle the affluent of the world are contributing to a collapse of the resources on which they as well as all other living beings depend.

This observation has failed to lead to sufficiently vigorous action so far, despite warning signals dating back at least one hundred years[2]. Only gradually are people, worldwide, beginning to understand the links between the inner and the outer, between humankind and all other beings. Perhaps the SDGs, with their universal applicability, will speed up the process – will help to make the message easier to understand, to digest, and to use as a basis for action; in which case, the perceived imbalances and injustices in the world will decrease.

In our organization we have for nearly three decades been committed to what has become known as education for sustainable development: empowering people to live increasingly sustainably. We believe the SDGs can provide new tools for us and for many others with whom we cooperate around the world. We believe we have a great deal to learn from Bhutan; and perhaps also something to contribute.

— Marilyn Mehlmann,

[1] http://17goals.org

[2] See, for instance, Svante Arrhenius re global climate change, 1896