Happy by decree: Ecuador’s ‘well-being’ chief works to raise contentment

For decades, Freddy Ehlers has been ubiquitous in this small Andean nation. He’s been a television star for more than 30 years, the minister of tourism, the secretary general of the Andean Community and a two-time presidential candidate. Now, at 69, Ehlers is embarking on what might be his most ambitious job yet: making the country happier.

Since 2013, Ehlers has been the State Secretary of Buen Vivir, which roughly translates to “good living” or, as he prefers, “well-being.”

With a staff of 30, a $2 million annual budget and a direct line to President Rafael Correa, Ehlers has the task of trying to increase the nation’s sense of contentment.

If the job description sometimes elicits chuckles, Ehlers is dead serious about his work.

“The difference between living better and well-being is a matter of life or death,” he said. “Because if you use the word ‘better,’ it means you’re never satisfied with what you have. It’s unlimited growth.”

And as the country’s emerging middle class discovers disposable income, it has been falling into the consumer trap that threatens to ruin mental health and the planet, he said.

“We have to redefine what progress means, redefine development and redefine well-being,” he said. “What we’re proposing is changing civilization because the one we have is going to lead us to ‘eco-cide’ ” – short for environmental suicide.

Once relegated to bumper-stickers, songs and a line in the U.S. constitution, happiness has become a serious subject. Most of the world’s top universities, the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Developmen are researching it.

Ecuador adopted the indigenous concept of Sumak Kawsay, or Good Life, in its 2008 constitution. When it created the secretariat five years later, it joined just a few nations – including Venezuela and Bhutan – that have made happiness-seeking a Cabinet-level position.

Scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which produces the annual World Happiness Report, use six variables to measure well-being: per capita income, healthy life expectancy, generosity, perceptions of corruption, the freedom to make key life decisions and social support – how many friends an individual can count on in times of trouble.

But many of the factors that make a society happy are simply part of good governance and can’t be decreed, said John Helliwell, co-editor of the report and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

In that sense, setting up a ministry is “neither necessary nor sufficient to (create) happier lives,” he said. Its benefit, if any, comes from focusing attention on the issues.

It’s important “to set alternative goals for individual communities and nations that look beyond just income per capita,” Helliwell said. “There are many other aspects of life that are more important, and there is the issue of environmental sustainability. … How do you allow good lives to be led without the same environmental drain?”

Critics often conjure images of Ehlers and his staff doing yoga in incense-filled rooms. And his office does give off that aura: There’s a crystal sitting at the feet of the statuette of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, a flickering candle beside a bust of Buddha, a copy of an Eckhart Tolle book on his desk.

But Ehlers insists he’s out to get real-world results. Earlier this year, his office began working with Ecuador’s National Statistic Institute to define and track data that might measure happiness.

One of his first projects was working with health officials to create a stop-light system on all packaged food. Now, consumers can quickly see if the sugar, salt and fat content in their snacks have green, yellow or red lights.

Making it easier to eat healthy promotes general well-being, the theory goes. Even so, the system faced industry backlash, Ehlers said.

“Some (companies) have been seriously affected by this, but now they’re trying to come out with products that are all green lights,” he said. “It’s a small example of what we’re trying to do.”

The office is also planning to roll out a series of classroom lessons to promote 12 values, including honesty, forgiveness and perseverance. And borrowing from work done in Spain, the government will begin teaching students meditation. Six-year-olds will learn to meditate for six minutes, 10-year-olds for 10 minutes and so on, Ehlers said.

“This is not a religious program,” he said. “It’s simply practicing silence, mindfulness. ... (Children) have lost touch with their hearts and nature.”

But the backbone of the ministry’s work is half-hour programs shown on public television that advocate the happy lifestyle.

One might think that happiness is something everyone could get behind. But in increasingly polarized Ecuador, the Secretariat of Buen Vivir has been under attack.

Last week, anti-government protesters demanded the office be closed.

“We want to shut down one of the symbols of obese bureaucracy created by President Correa,” opposition Deputy Andras Paez told La Hora newspaper, calling Ehler’s department “an insult to the intelligence of Ecuadoreans.”

Oswaldo Moreno, a political analyst and campaign strategist, said critics view the program as a Venezuelan import – part of the “21st-century socialism” that Correa advocates. Now that the government has been cutting costs and seeking funds as oil prices fall, the program is under scrutiny.

“There are a lot of people who question the very existence of the ministry,” Moreno said. “All this talk of well-being is a joke to some people but for others it’s very serious.”

It’s far from clear whether creating happiness ministries has much impact.

Since the 1970s, the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, has made happiness a primary focus. Rather than gross national product, it measures gross happiness product with a range of indicators, including interconnectedness and how many people still speak their native language.

“You would think that since (happiness) has been Bhutan’s national goal for 40 years that somehow they would lead the world ranking,” Helliwell said. “While their happiness is above their immediate neighbors, it’s still down on the list.”

Bhutan comes in 79th out of 158 countries in the World Happiness Report. Likewise, while Venezuela (ranked No. 23) created the post of vice minister of the people’s supreme social happiness in 2013, that country’s levels of well-being have been sinking along with its economy.

Ecuador, which has economic troubles of its own, is ranked No. 48. Even if such ministries of happiness are not entirely effective, they play a role in getting society to consider its priorities, Helliwell said.

Even if such ministries of happiness are not entirely effective, they play a role in getting society to consider its priorities, Helliwell said.

In Bhutan’s case, “it’s not what they’ve done in the design and delivery of Bhutanese policies … but what they’ve done on a global level,” he said. In 2011, the country helped create World Happiness Day and it has “provided a focus and orientation to think about these things.”

Ehlers argues that his department is one of the smallest in the administration and he has the gargantuan task of making the country a better place during challenging times.

“We have thousands of friends on Facebook and Twitter, but we don’t have anyone to hug; we don’t have anyone to touch,” he said. “That’s the tragedy of the modern world. We have to make time to hug people.”