Can Dubai become the world’s happiest city?

These diners at Dinner in the Sky UAE look happy -- but how about the rest of Dubai?

Story highlights

UAE has a Ministry of Happiness charged with promoting happiness

Dubai uses Happiness Meters to measure well being

CNN  — 

Not content with being home to the world’s tallest tower and fastest police car, Dubai has set a challenge for itself to become the world’s happiest city.

In its quest to achieve this, the city in the sand is measuring people’s happiness through interactive touchpoints around Dubai, called Happiness Meters.

There are three emojis on each meter – a happy face, a neutral face and a sad face – which people use to rank their satisfaction with everyday services. Results from the meters feed into a Happiness Index; the number of smiley faces tapped determines the city’s “happiness score.”

happiness meter dubai

The meters are the work of Smart Dubai – a government entity tasked with transforming Dubai into a “smart city” – which believes that people will lead happier lives if their day-to-day experiences are seamless and efficient.

“In order to become the happiest city, we knew we would need a way to listen to everyone in the city, and understand their current levels of happiness with city services,” Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr, director general of Smart Dubai, told CNN over email.

Dubai’s ‘happiness score’

The current “happiness score” for Dubai, measured by over 6 million votes from Happiness Meters, sits at 90 percent, according to Bishr.

“Our goal is to increase Dubai’s happiness index level to 95 percent by 2021,” she added.

In an attempt to streamline public services, Smart Dubai has installed sensors in garbage bins to send alerts when they need emptying. It has also developed DubaiNow – an app for residents to pay their bills, fines and complete over 55 city services.

Smart Dubai’s vision is for Dubai to be both the happiest city and the most technologically advanced city in the world. Its next step is to gauge deeper emotions through vocal emotions technology that analyzes tone of voice and other vocal properties.

But happiness is no laughing matter, and the UAE has invested a lot of time and resources into its people’s subjective well-being.

How to make people happy

The first Minister of State for Happiness in the UAE, Ohood Al Roumi, was sworn in last year, followed by 60 Happiness CEOs across government departments.

The Ministry of Happiness’ role is to promote and prioritize happiness in government and everyday life.

CEOs of Happiness admire art at SIKKA Art Fair

This is all part of a bigger plan, laid out in the UAE Vision 2021, to put the United Arab Emirates’ well-being at the forefront of government decisions. Through doing so the UAE hopes to become the “happiest of all nations” according to the program.

In Dubai there has been a plethora of happiness themed events organized by government including a “happiness park” to promote exercise, a “happiness journey” on International Happiness Day, and various happiness festivals including activities like laughter meditation.

Should governments regulate happiness?

But not everyone is happy with the UAE’s Happiness Agenda.

A researcher from Human Rights Watch has labeled the Ministry of Happiness “Orwellian,” while some have questioned how inclusive Dubai’s “happiness renaissance” will be.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have highlighted human rights concerns in the UAE, such as restricting rights to freedom of expression and association and arbitrarily detaining and prosecuting those who criticize the government.

Smart Dubai's Dr. Aisha bin Bishr

In response to this, Bishr told CNN that any action or decision taken by a government entity is to ensure better standards of living and happier lives for their people.

CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, Meik Wiking, agrees that happiness need to be at the core of public policy.

“Happiness should be the overarching goal of governments,” he told CNN.

Measuring a subjective feeling

The World Happiness Report 2017 ranked the UAE in 21st place. The report uses people’s own life evaluation scores to measure subjective well-being.

“People are the best judges of whether they’re happy or not,” said Wiking.

The happiness rankings are then explained by looking at six key variables – GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.

According to Wiking, those six factors are important indicators for why some countries rank higher than others.

“It is extremely ambitious to be one of the five happiest countries by 2021,” Wiking said, commenting on the UAE’s desire to become one of the happiest nations in the world.

“Norway just pushed Denmark out of first place this year. You’re down to the second decimal now that separates number one from number two,” he added.

Wiking has every confidence that Dubai is taking the right steps toward achieving its own goal. He has signed a memorandum of understanding with the UAE government, promising to share expertise and knowledge.

“I haven’t seen many other governments as ambitious,” he said.

“They have an explicit ambition of where they want to be, so that is something tangible and measurable.”

If you’re happy and you know it

While the World Happiness Report ranks nations’ happiness, it doesn’t do the same for individual cities. This makes it difficult for Dubai to asses where it stands.

However, Bishr said Smart Dubai is working on ways to compare levels of happiness in Dubai with other cities in the world.

“When a city commits itself to people’s happiness, it is not only the individual who will benefit,” explained Bishr.

“When people are happier the city benefits, which in turn feeds benefits directly back to the individual and so on in a positive cycle.”