Gross National Happiness

The newfound interest in happiness has a surprising origin, a tiny landlocked Himalayan country called Bhutan, believed by some to be the model for Shangri-La, the utopia in James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Here, an old way of life continues. Beneath soaring, icy summits, shepherds tend their flocks amid impossibly green terraces of rice and potatoes. Prayer flags flutter above dramatically beautiful palaces and fortresses. Bhutan is still idyllic.

But this little country of less than one million people is home to a great, and modern, experiment. “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” its then sixteen-year-old king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, proclaimed upon his coronation in 1972.3

In most countries, and especially in ours, King Wangchuck's proclamation might have been greeted with a polite smile, a yawn, and a quick return to the business of making money. But not in Bhutan, where people take their king's pronouncements seriously.

So for nearly forty years, Bhutan has actually been implementing the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH ), seeking ways to measure its progress toward greater well-being and shape its institutions with that goal in mind. Especially in the past decade, the Bhutanese have brought many of the world's smartest happiness researchers to their country in an effort to apply scientific rigor to the task of making their fellow citizens happier. It almost seems like a fable: one of the smallest and poorest of nations teaching the rich and powerful how to live.

November 2009. The cavernous ballroom at the Rafain Palace Hotel in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, is full, for the Fifth International Gross National Happiness conference. The audience of eight hundred people, many of them jet-lagged from transcontinental flights and wishing they were soaking in the splendor of the world's largest waterfall only ten miles away, would be a tough sell for any speaker. But in his quiet, humble way, Karma Ura engages them. Ura, the director of the Center for Bhutan Studies in Thimphu, Bhutan, explains that years of research into Gross National Happiness have led the Bhutanese to consider nine “domains” for assessing happiness.

1. Psychological well-being

2. Physical health

3. Time use (work-life balance)

4. Community vitality and social connection

5. Education

6. Cultural preservation, access, and diversity

7. Environmental sustainability

8. Good governance

9. Material well-being4

Bhutan's king found out that good, democratic governance was one of the important pillars of well-being. He became determined to make Bhutan a democracy and traveled throughout the country promoting the change. He then abdicated his throne despite popular pressure to remain in power. In 2008, Bhutan peacefully elected its first parliament. Its constitution enshrines Gross National Happiness as the purpose of government.

Bhutan has developed questionnaires with which to measure life satisfaction in each of these dimensions. Officials use these in regular polls of the Bhutanese people. Included are such questions as: How often do you feel safe from human harm? Rarely? Usually? Always?

The Bhutanese now base major policy decisions in part on an analysis of how changes might affect each of these domains, for better or worse. At a minimum, any change should not diminish the overall satisfaction derived from the domains; at best, it should enhance many of them. Recently, when considering a proposal to join the World Trade Organization, Bhutan used the policy tool established to analyze legislation. Needing a score of 69 on this measure, the proposal failed miserably (with a 42), and Bhutan has not joined.5

Bhutan's GNH undergoes consistent improvement. In March 2011, the National Statistics Bureau of Bhutan invited Dave and colleagues Bob Costanza and Ida Kubiszewski to help conduct a workshop there about natural capital and ecosystem services, part of Dave's regular work with Earth Economics. Bureau director Kuenga Tshering outlined a five-year goal to improve Bhutan's environmental sustainability (one of its nine domains of happiness) with practical physical measures of the content and benefits of the nation's resources, from lowland wetlands to Himalayan glaciers. Participants also advocated designing measurements for climate change threats such as glacial outbursts, forest fires, and flooding. At the workshop, Kuenga Tshering explained the kind of happiness Bhutan seeks to measure, “Gross National Happiness is not about momentary happiness, as from buying something new. It is about contentment that comes from family, community, spirituality, education, yes, material things, but also good governance, good relationship with nature, good physical health. We think this is the best path for Bhutan. We hope other countries can find value in what we're doing.”6

As part of Bhutan's GNH calculations, Tshering's National Statistics Bureau may develop the world's most robust natural capital accounting system.

It's necessary to make clear that we don't put Bhutan on a pedestal; Bhutan's happiness levels, life expectancy, and quality of life have improved greatly in recent years, but its human rights record regarding Nepalese immigrants earns criticism, much of it deserved. But to suggest, as some have, that we pay no attention to Bhutan's ideas about measuring and improving happiness because it is not Utopia would be like rejecting those of Thomas Jefferson because he had slaves.

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