The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan long ago dispensed with the notion of Gross National Product as a gauge of well-being. The king decreed that his people would aspire to Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead.
That kernel of Buddhist wisdom is increasingly finding an echo in international policy and development models, which seek to establish scientific methods for finding out what makes us happy and why.
New research institutes are being created at venerable universities like Oxford and Cambridge to establish methods of judging individual and national well-being. Governments are putting ever greater emphasis on promoting mental well-being -- not just treating mental illness.
"In much the same way that research of consumer unions helps you to make the best buy, happiness research can help you make the best choices," said Ruut Veenhoven, who created the World Database of Happiness in 1999.
When he started studying happiness in the 1960s, Veenhoven used data from social researchers who simply asked people how satisfied they were with their lives, on a scale of zero to 10. But as the discipline has matured and gained popularity in the past decade, self-reporting has been found lacking.
By their own estimate, "drug addicts would measure happy all the time," said Sabina Alkire, of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Institute, which began work May 30.
New studies add more objective questions into a mix of feel-good factors: Education, nutrition, freedom from fear and violence, gender equality, and perhaps most importantly, having choices.
"People's ability to be an agent, to act on behalf of what matters to them, is fundamental," Alkire said.
But if people say money can't buy happiness, they're only partially right.
Veenhoven's database, which lists 95 countries, is headed by Denmark with a rating of 8.2, followed by Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and Finland, all countries with high per capita income. At the other end of the scale are much poorer countries: Tanzania rated 3.2, behind Zimbabwe, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia.
The US just makes it into the top 15 with a 7.4 index rating. While choice is abundant in the US, nutrition and violence issues helped drag its rating down.
Wealth counts, but most studies of individuals show income disparities count more. Surprisingly, however, citizens are no happier in welfare states, which strive to mitigate the distortions of capitalism than in purer free-market economies.
"In the beginning, I didn't believe my eyes," said Veenhoven of his data.
"Icelanders are just as happy as Swedes, yet their country spends half what Sweden does [per capita] on social welfare," he said.
In emphasizing personal freedom as a root of happiness, Alkire cited her study of women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which showed that poor women who make their own choices score highly, compared with women with strict fathers or husbands.
Adrian White, of the University of Leicester, included twice as many countries as Veenhoven in his Global Projection of Subjective Well-being, which also measures the correlation of happiness and wealth. He, too, led his list with Denmark, Switzerland and Austria.
Bhutan, where less than half the people can read or write and 90 percent are subsistence farmers, ranks No. 8 in his list of happy nations. Its notion of GNH is based on equitable development, environmental conservation, cultural heritage and good governance.