Economist John Helliwell studies the gross domestic "happiness" index

A country's overall level of happiness may be a key factor in their success. Photo: Don MacCaulay

A country's overall level of happiness may be a key factor in their success. Photo: Don MacCaulay

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Ever since the advent of positive psychology, researchers have been using the tools of science to try to understand what makes our lives worth living; what constitutes happiness.

Happiness pioneers such as Martin Seligman have studied how meaningful work, learning a skill, having family, friends and an active social life can all have a powerful influence on our emotional state.

Now, researchers are turning their attention to a broader canvas. They're looking not just at what makes a person happy, but what makes a country happy.

The term "gross national happiness" was first coined over 40 years ago, by the ruler of Bhutan, a small, South Asian kingdom which was about to undertake a modernization project. 

Today, this idea of a national happiness index is being adopted by other countries. It is on its way to becoming a key measure of a country's success and liveability - right up there with GDP, infant mortality, education levels, and the many other indicators that have been used to chart a country's ability to produce successful, productive citizens. 

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Dr. John Helliwell.
The international social science of happiness is a relatively new discipline, and its leading specialist is a Canadian. 

John Helliwell began exploring social capital when he was at Harvard in the 90's. He was co-author of the United Nations' "World Happiness Report" which was released last year. The UN declared the first-ever World Happiness Day on March 20th.

Dr. Helliwell is a former advisor to the Bank of Canada, and a scholar with the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research, where he is co-director of its program on social interaction, identity and well-being.

His book Globalization and Well-Being won the Donner Prize as the best book on Canadian public policy in 2003.

Helliwell is Professor Emeritus at the Vancouver School of Economics at UBC.
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