Can a Happiness Index Bring Back the World’s Smile?

The stock of happiness may be diminishing across the globe, but Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador is right to want to measure it.
Happiness index, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Lopez Obrador, AMLO, Mexican president, Mexico news, Mexico news, coronavirus news, COVID-19 news, Peter Isackson

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May 25, 2020 13:59 EDT

In the midst of the unhappiness of the coronavirus pandemic, what better response to the gloom than to focus on happiness? Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the president of Mexico, has found an appropriate answer to the anguish and fear that have accompanied the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It may seem paradoxical or even comic to some, but it stands as an interesting indicator of the left-wing president’s political savvy.

The Shifting Perspective of the Financial Times


Mexico News Daily reports on the upbeat news that Lopez Obrador is “preparing to launch an ‘alternative index’ that will measure people’s happiness and well-being in addition to economic growth.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


A fictional measurement system required by bureaucrats and adepts of the “science of management,” made up of arbitrarily chosen criteria for evaluating phenomena no one can understand, with the idea that if the results can be made to appear in numerical form, the phenomenon being measured may become subject to bureaucratic control or scientific management

Contextual Note

Although his behavior provoked controversy in the early stages of the pandemic, Lopez Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) has seen his popularity rise in the past month. His approval rating on his handling of the crisis rose from 28% in March to 53% in April. More impressively, his overall job approval attained an enviable 68%.

Left-wing leaders in Latin America have become rarer and rarer after a decade marked by the receding of the pink tide. Elected in 2018, AMLO has demonstrated a political talent with the media superior to US President Donald Trump’s, even in the face of Mexico’s endemic problems of lawlessness and violence and now a viral pandemic. He has now complemented what has proved to be a very successful strategy of direct communication with the public through daily morning news conferences with a complementary evening session led by his deputy health minister, Hugo Lopez-Gatell.

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This openness to public discussion has established his image as a very human, even if imperfect leader of his people. AMLO survived a very serious controversy — amplified by The New York Times — about the numbers of COVID-19 cases reported. It called into question his credibility. In response, the Mexican president successfully built a discourse that combines populist emotion and scientific seriousness. For the moment at least, it’s a winning strategy.

Now, AMLO is cleverly pushing his advantage further with a bold proposal targeting nothing less than the post-pandemic future of humanity by changing the way people in the West evaluate a government’s economic performance. Although the tiny Asian nation of Bhutan pioneered AMLO’s idea when it built its innovative Gross National Happiness Index into its constitution in 2008 — the year of the subprime market crash, which underlines at least its symbolic importance — the promotion of the idea by a nation such as Mexico in times of global panic belongs to another weight class.

Hard-nosed Westerners tend to see innovative ideas originating in the “spiritual East” as little more than facets of the romantic mythology of Shangri-La. Though Wall Street tends to put left-wing leaders in the Americas in a somewhat similar category of “dreamers,” AMLO’s gesture may have some impact in a world searching for new paradigms.

Mexico is not only the immediate neighbor of the United States, but it is also a significant player in Western geopolitics and the second most powerful economy in Latin America, after Brazil. This invites a double comparison concerning AMLO’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Compared to Trump, whose erratic behavior has led to a decline in his already fragile favorability ratings, Lopez Obrador has found a way of using the crisis to boost his popularity.

Compared to Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who just a few days ago was called a murderer and hounded out of a town by the population, AMLO could emerge as a forerunner of a new turning of the pink tide. Indeed, Bolsonaro and AMLO assumed their respective presidencies only a month apart, a mere 18 months ago. At the very moment that Lopez Obrador demonstrates his ability to weather various storms, due to the Brazilian leader’s increasingly erratic behavior, Bolsonaro’s reign may be nearing its end.

Historical Note

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s initiative with the happiness index is not just a clever electoral ploy devised for reasons of self-celebration. Some may see it that way, since approval ratings could be seen as a measure of popular happiness distracting people’s attention from the perception of economic failure. For Mexicans, the president’s initiative propels him into an admittedly modest but real role of global leadership.

Even if leaders of other nations have other compelling priorities, everyone across the globe can now sense, however dimly, that the human race is at a turning-point in its history. When the current crisis is over — however completely or incompletely — many things will be different and various processes will have been put in motion that will lead to even more radical changes. No one can predict what those changes will look like, but everyone is convinced they will occur.

With the happiness index, AMLO has seized on a theme that at least reflects the will to affirm a vision of history. This is far more than any other leader has done. The Mexican president invokes a “new parameter” and a “new paradigm.” He exploits a powerful populist theme when he says, “The technocrats won’t like it … but if they don’t like it, it’s probably good for us.” He points to a future that is no longer dominated by the managerial technocracy that has characterized the neoliberal order of the past forty years.

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Lopez Obrador hopes to see a world in which people no longer have the reflex to point to GDP as the unique measure of economic success. He presents it as a change of method and vision, modestly and collaboratively hoping to “contribute to having other parameters in the world in order to know if there really is well-being.” He doesn’t claim to know what defines well-being and appears to be counting on others to work on its definition, but he does affirm that it’s about “the distribution of wealth.” This implies that it should also be about the definition of wealth, not as obvious a concept as some economists think.

In a different economic culture, wealth would no longer be thought of as the assets controlled by individuals or corporate entities (the owner class), an idea that Thomas Piketty and Philippe Askenazy identify with the ideology of “proprietarism,” or the belief that “everything is property.”

AMLO sees the happiness index as a global, collective effort that aims at changing our way of understanding the economic world we live in. Mexico News Daily reports that the president said “he will consult with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and seek contributions from econometricians, mathematicians, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other experts.” This contrasts radically with the reclusive nationalism of Donald Trump’s “America First” approach as well as with US president himself, who acknowledges only two measures of success: the stock market and employment/unemployment figures.

Lopez Obrador wants to see a radical shift in the way nations across the globe assess success as a response to the current crisis and a guide to establishing a new equilibrium. He claims that this approach will be “something new, an interesting contribution; thinking about the return to the ‘new normal’ [from the coronavirus pandemic], we can’t continue living in the same way.”

Paradoxically, in another article on the same day, Mexico News Daily reports the results of a study of the Mexican economy by the research division of the Spanish bank BBVA. It predicts that the economic crisis induced by the pandemic “could push more than 34 million additional people — about one in four Mexicans — into poverty in a worst case scenario.” Happiness is not likely to be on the uptick and maintaining trust in the government will require some deft footwork on AMLO’s part, not just the formulation of visionary ideas.

When the COVID-19 crisis is finally over and before the next pandemic arrives, many unforeseen things will happen. Economies are faltering, but they may find a way of reviving and even acquiring new vigor. Whether our civilization can deal psychologically as well as economically with the destruction of so many jobs in so many places remains to be seen. It is likely that some radically different model of planning and understanding the economy will emerge. A solid, well thought-out happiness index could be useful for better approaches to governance. 

But it may also be necessary for to develop, in parallel, an unhappiness index.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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