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Measuring Bhutan's Gross National Happiness ... With Balloons

In 1972, Bhutan's newly crowned leader pronounced a new measure of prosperity rather than the G.D.P.: Gross National Happiness. But how do you measure something so abstract? Jonathan Harris had the idea to do it with balloons.

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Harris does cool things on the Internet. His project We Feel Fine, for example, tracks occurrences of the phrase "I feel" from blogs across the Internet, and translates that information visually.

A screen grab of the Balloons of Bhutan interactive

A screen grab of the Balloons of Bhutan interactive Jonathan Harris hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Harris

"I believe the Internet is becoming a planetary meta-organism," he writes on his site, "but that it is up to us to guide its evolution, and to shape it into a space we actually want to inhabit — one that can understand and honor both the individual human and the human collective, just like real life does."

For his latest project, a Web interactive called Balloons of Bhutan, Harris spent two weeks asking 117 locals five questions: What makes you happy? What is your happiest memory? What is your favorite joke? If you could make one wish, what would it be? And what is your level of happiness between 1 and 10? There's a photograph for each question — and for the last one, he handed out the corresponding number of balloons.

On the final night of the project, Harris strung 117 balloons with thousands of prayer flags in a sacred mountain pass.

On the final night of the project, Harris strung 117 balloons with thousands of prayer flags in a sacred mountain pass. Jonathan Harris hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Harris

If anything, it's an interesting visualization of a concept that's difficult to quantify. What do you think? How many balloons would you be holding?

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