The "happiness" project

Print edition : August 02, 2019

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin doing a walkabout at the third Forum of Social Innovations of the Regions, held in Moscow from June 19-21. Photo: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency.

The Digital Palace, headquarters of centralised digital services, in Moscow. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Ksenia Vladimirova, in charge of "My Social Centre", with Maxim Leukhin, associate coordinator. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Senior citizens making use of the facilities at the Digital Palace. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

A free recreational facility for senior citizens. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Shukut Roman, Director of the Youth Job Centre in Moscow. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Counselling going on at the Youth Job Centre. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Russia showcases methods and programmes associated with its own iteration of the “happiness project” pioneered by Bhutan, with specific focus on longevity, health care, education and an active lifestyle.

When the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution titled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” in July 2011 urging member nations to measure the happiness and well-being of their citizens and calling happiness a “fundamental human goal”, it also acknowledged that the inspiration for pioneering such an initiative was the small country of Bhutan and the “happiness project” the Buddhist Himalayan kingdom had been pursuing since the early 1970s.

The “project” was first highlighted before the world in 1972, when Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the then Crown Prince of Bhutan, stated that gross national happiness (GNH) was more important than gross national product (GDP). The premise for such a statement was that the sense of well-being among citizens also needed to be taken into account along with economic indicators to take forward sustainable development of communities. The U.N. resolution accepted this premise as one validated by international experience.

Since the passage of the 2011 U.N. resolution, many nations have adopted the concept and evolved diverse governance initiatives based on it. In February 2016, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum appointed Ohood Al Roumi as the country’s first Minister of State for Happiness with the brief of overseeing “plans, projects, programmes [and] indices” that improve the country’s overall mood.

In May this year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released the first-ever “well-being budget” of the country and asserted that the purpose of government spending was to ensure citizens’ health and life satisfaction, and that that was the metric by which a country’s progress should be measured, not wealth or economic growth alone. “GDP alone does not guarantee improvement to our living standards”, nor does it “take into account who benefits and who is left out”, she said.

The appointment of Tracey Crouch in January 2018 as the first Minister for Loneliness in the United Kingdom was also a governance initiative with several linkages to the 2011 U.N. resolution. Over the past decade, Russia, too, has sought to adopt and adapt to the “well-being and happiness concept and project” in its own unique ways, employing what is often termed as “strategies and methods with distinctly Russian characteristics”.

The Third Forum of Social Innovations of the Regions held in Moscow from June 19 to June 21 showcased some of the strategies, methods and programmes associated with the project. The focus was on five specific social development themes: longevity, health care, education, an active lifestyle and happiness, which was stressed in conference documents as something that “should permeate the entire social sphere”.

Indeed, different countries have adapted to the “happiness project” in different ways, but the Russian enterprise in this direction, as witnessed at the Forum as well as in the field units, seems largely guided by the original Bhutanese example. The Bhutanese definition of GNH emphasises nine domains and four pillars of happiness that collectively guide and lead to harmony with nature and traditional values.

The nine domains are psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The four pillars are sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.

Dorji Penjore, who heads the Centre for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies, has been interacting with his Russian counterparts in government for many years on the concept. He was a participant at the 2019 Forum too, once again reiterating the concepts promoted by his country.

Longevity project

The Moscow Longevity Project, launched in March 2018 under the auspices of the office of the Moscow Mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, was one of the key projects that was foregrounded. “For the mind, for the soul and for health” is the slogan of the project, which is totally free of cost for the beneficiaries. It caters essentially to women over 55 and men over 60 and has specific schemes to enhance their overall physical well-being through focussed medical care, fitness and leisure activities apart from elevation of intellectual and creative skills covering areas such as information technology and arts and crafts.

Every citizen of Moscow in the specified age group is eligible for the project. The academic Andrey Kurpatov, a specialist in neuroscience and human behaviour, who was involved in the development of the longevity project, said: “The human race has already learned how to deal with the problems of body ageing, but we are not yet technologically prepared to prevent brain ageing, because science knows obscenely little about the human brain.”

The managers of the various units of the project said that this understanding had been factored into the conceptualisation and the day-to-day functioning of the scheme.

In practical terms, the schemes in the project include longevity training—athletics and gymnastics under the supervision of doctors in special clinics—and “Silver University”, a free educational programme for elderly people, enabling them to start new careers. These are normally conducted in specially set up “longevity centres”.

There is also a regular outing initiative termed the “Kind bus”, which gives elderly Muscovites a free tour around Moscow. Some of the offbeat programmes listed under the project include Scandinavian walking, learning English, drawing, singing, dancing and honing acting skills. According to official statistics, more than 13,000 people are engaged simultaneously in three or more types of classes of the project. The project is most popular among participants aged 55-75 years. The majority of the participants are women, who account for 87.1 per cent of the beneficiaries.

Svetlana Petrova, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Protection of the Russian Federation, said that there was a special federal project called “The Older Generation” that replicates some segments of the Moscow Longevity Project in other parts of Russia.

“The project is aimed at improving the quality of life of older people. First of all it is about health, social assistance and leisure activities,” she said.

Another stand-alone programme that supplements the Longevity Project is the establishment of “Healthy Moscow” pavilions that are functional across 40 parks in Moscow, where visitors of all ages can get free basic medical check-ups, which include electrocardiograms and fluorography. This is a walk-in service that does not require registration.

Doctors and paramedical staff in some of these pavilions told Frontline that access to such periodic, free tests would ultimately lead to the integration of new health-saving technologies into the health care system and shift the focus from the treatment of diseases and their consequences to prevention. They also said that this could generally change people’s attitude to their own health.

According to Alexandra Alexandrova, first deputy head of the Department of Labour and Social Protection of the Population of the City of Moscow, there are specific well-being programmes and schemes for people of pre-retirement age too.

“The main problem faced by such citizens is job search. On the directions of the Mayor of Moscow, a special platform has been created in the city that will help people aged over 50 in finding employment. We call them people of wise age. Now there are 8,74,000 such people in Moscow, but considering the changes in the pension legislation by 2024, with each year there will be 30,000 fewer of them,” she said.

Programmes for youth

Shukut Roman, Director of the “Youth Job Centre” under the Labour and Security Department of Moscow, told Frontline that several programmes and schemes were directed at the youth. “Unemployment per se is not a huge problem in Russia as it is under 5 per cent, but the real issue for the young people is getting productive and profitable employment commensurate with the changing times. And providing that is the focus of the new social innovation and happiness project related schemes and programmes such as ‘My Work’ and ‘My Career’. These schemes provide free and focussed guidance and hand-holding for job seekers,” he said.

There are other supplementary programmes such as “My Social Centre”, which helps people get acquainted with the results of the state’s programmes, and “Metropolitan Education”, which points to and facilitates value addition for those at different stages of their educational career.

Dmitry Glushko, Deputy General Director of the Union of the Agency for the Development of Professional Communities and Workers Young Professionals (Worldskills Russia), said that in 2019, more than 2,500 people in 11 regions of the Russian Federation would be retrained as part of the “Young Professionals” project.

“Part of the project is a demonstration exam in Worldskills standards passed by the graduates of educational institutions. This exam has been held in more than 1,300 companies already and passed by 5,500 people. We see that the salary of specialists who passed the exam is 60 per cent higher,” Glushko said at the Forum. The project also provides for retraining of the adult population in 116 competencies.

Another part of the project is “Ticket to the Future” for schoolchildren. “This is a large career guidance platform where about a million schoolchildren can work at the same time,” said Glushko.

An interesting aspect of almost all the facilities and service centres that this correspondent visited as part of a larger international media team was that the infrastructure facilities of all of them were built during the Soviet period. For instance, the “Youth Job Centre” building was set up in the 1920s with many different aims, including job promotion.

Shukut Roman said that he had even set up a museum in the premises highlighting the history of the building and its functions since the 1920s. But at the time of the Forum it was under renovation and was not accessible. He further said that over the years, the “sincerity and service scales” provided by the centres of public services had undergone a transformation and become more positive. Other facilities such as “Health Pavilions”, “My Social Centre” and “Digital Palace” were also housed in Soviet-era structures. The latter facility’s walls were adorned with colourful engravings of Lenin. Even the centre that hosted the Forum had been in use during the Soviet period and a massive statue of Lenin stood on its grounds. An businessman of Indian origin who has been living in Russia for the past 30 years said that large sections of the current Russian leadership, including President Vladimir Putin, do not believe in blind repudiation of the gains that the Soviet era brought to Russia.

“Putin’s firm rejection of calls to move Lenin’s embalmed body from the mausoleum to a grave, asserting that such an act would be tantamount to stating that the Russian people had not gained during the 70 years of the Soviet Union, clearly points to this perception,” he said.

Going beyond showcasing the new initiatives based on social innovations and the happiness project, the Forum became a setting for widespread interaction across different streams of stakeholders. These included drivers of governance such as senior politicians and officials such as Chairperson of the Federation Council of Russia Valentina Matvienko; Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin; Presidential Representative in the Central Federal District Sergey Shchegolev; State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin; Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation for Social Policy Matters Tatyana Golikova; Health Minister of the Russian Federation Veronika Skvortsova; representatives from academia; social innovators; non-state social service providers; and performers of socially useful services.

The interactions at the Forum had a good turnout, with widespread participation by volunteers associated with various “well-being projects” and members of the public. Anastasia Rakova, one of the key organisers of the Forum, stated the event had been thrown open to the public for the first time and the response was overwhelming. An estimated 35,000 people participated in the event along with 200 public and political figures and 24 leading experts from the United States, France, the U.K., Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Israel, the Netherlands, Argentina, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Bhutan and Azerbaijan.

Some 65 sessions were held during the three days of the Forum. The experts and academics who participated included Michio Kaku, the renowned theoretical physicist and futurologist; Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness; Melita Vuinovic, World Health Organisation Representative in the Russian Federation; and Nyuta Federmesser, whose work at the grass-roots level in palliative care is widely acknowledged.

Discussions at these levels witnessed repeated assertions about the imbalance of “happiness-oriented” services between Moscow and other parts of Russia. Even the Mayor of Moscow acknowledged this when he said that Russia needed to make sure that good social services reached other parts of the country too.

The final declaration of the Forum took this and other limitations into consideration even while highlighting the gains and positives of the engagement with social innovation and the happiness project. The final proclamation indicated that the existing scale of the projects and their future scalability needed to be studied closely and enhanced.

It also reiterated the need to continue with the new framework and the new scientific direction on the economic theory of happiness based on an alternative to the economy of consumption and the ideology of the mindless, unsustainable development. It also emphasised the need to connect objective economic criteria with the subjective feelings of people and determine the socio-economic categories that could ensure balanced economic growth. It underscored one of the factors that changes the focus on the “economy of happiness” in the decision-making system, which in turn needs to actively perceive the key trends of the last decades, especially at the level of the use of information technology and the transition to digital platform solutions in the provision of social services and other activities in the social sphere.