Governed by happiness in Bhutan
Imagine the government making policy decisions aimed specifically at increasing your level of happiness and the overall wellbeing of the entire country. In the Kingdom of Bhutan, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. Since 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has been creating policies under the banner of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which aims to allow every citizen of Bhutan the chance to pursue their own happiness with as few obstacles as possible. It’s an unconventional and somewhat controversial measure that puts the wellbeing of people and the environment alongside economic growth and development, intuitively going where no other government has ever dared to go.
The four pillars of Gross National Happiness
Bhutan is set on the western edge of the Himalayas between China, India and Nepal. It has a population of around 700,000 and covers an area about half the size of Tasmania. It also has a long tradition of Buddhism — the ancient art of achieving happiness through emotional and spiritual awareness and self-control — which is believed to have created the right conditions for the development of a GNH policy.
Gross National Happiness has been built — and continues to be developed — on the following four basic strategies, or “pillars”:
Sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development
Bhutan has relatively low levels of literacy, employment, life expectancy and healthcare and is therefore interested in improving its economy in order to raise the living standards for its people. A GNH economy must choose appropriate types of economic activity that take into account not just the economic outcomes but the social and environmental effects as well. Free time and leisure must be included alongside work and productivity, and unpaid contributions to society such as housework, caring for the elderly and raising children also need to be given value.
Conservation of the environment
Bhutan is a mostly mountainous country with a large area of forest and alpine wilderness. Having been self-sufficient for so long, the Bhutanese people understand the value of their environment for what it provides them with in terms of food, medicine and raw materials. A working relationship with the land provides the Bhutanese people with physical activity and exercise, as well as leisure and relaxation, and the environment’s aesthetic and spiritual values are also recognised.
In the interests of preserving the delicate ecology of their natural environment, more than one-quarter of the country has been preserved as wildlife sanctuary and there are comprehensive greening and biodiversity policies being carried out as well. Each person in Bhutan is allowed to cut down one tree a year for personal use, provided they plant two in its place.
Preservation and promotion of culture
The basic emphasis in this area of development is on ensuring the Bhutanese people are given the freedom to continue expressing themselves creatively. Individual expression is highly valued in GNH policy, as is the right to free speech. As policies develop along these lines, there is a reluctance to regulate human relationships in the context of laws and expectations, but rather to encourage voluntary responsibility that’s intended to come from a general respect for, and belief in, the social and cultural values.
This is perhaps the most difficult but most important pillar to get right in the pursuit of a Gross National Happiness. It requires that all members of government are motivated by the same desire: to help all the citizens of Bhutan to pursue their own happiness. Bhutan is currently drafting its first constitution and is in the process of shifting from a monarchy to a democracy. As Bhutan slowly moves towards this system, the King will voluntarily hand over his power to the National Assembly, and Bhutan’s first general election will be held in 2008.
The law of diminishing returns
Bhutan’s policies differ greatly from those of Western governments such as Australia’s where, more often than not, economic growth is used as the bottom-line objective of policy and planning decisions. Our political system supports the belief that a healthy economy is what is needed to make people’s lives better and pays little more than lip service to things outside this that make for a happier society. The difference between a policy such as Bhutan’s and one based on economic rationalism is that with Gross National Happiness, there is a very specific goal: the attainment of national happiness. With our system, the goal is a lot less certain
In capitalist societies, there is a general culture that promotes wealth and consumerism as the path to happiness; therefore, the more money you have, the more you are able to enjoy all that life has to offer. In other words, the richer you are, the happier you will be. Strangely enough, though, in developed “wealthy” countries, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, it has been discovered that a phenomenon known as the “law of diminishing returns” comes into effect once a country’s wealth exceeds a certain point.
Beyond a certain figure, your earnings do not have the capacity to make you appreciably happier. A recent poll in the US Time magazine found that up to an annual income of US$50,000 a year (approximately AU$66,000), people’s happiness increased. However, beyond that amount, the relative increase in wealth did not result in people being happier. In some cases, they were, in fact, more unhappy than those in the lower income brackets.
Countries with the greatest material wealth also experience the highest levels of stress, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, divorce, loneliness, depression and suicide.1 For countries that are poor and developing, improving the economy is undeniably paramount to creating a better standard of living, but in countries where the average standard of living is already high, money is not so directly linked to increasing happiness.
Then what does make people happy?
This is a difficult question to answer, as not all people are made happy by the same things. However, there do seem to be some basic principles of happiness that can be identified, such as having a sense of purpose or reason to live; feeling connected to other people and participating with them in a positive way; having hope; having the freedom to pursue personal interests; having a balance between work, leisure and spirituality; good physical health; and being connected to the earth.
In Bhutan, these requirements are met by policies designed to protect the natural environment, preserve indigenous culture, support the continuation of extended family living arrangements and enshrine basic human rights that benefit the majority of the people.
By contrast, in Australia we lack adequate laws to protect the basic right to free speech and our 100-year-old constitution is far from visionary or inspiring. Our natural resources are being rapidly depleted, our indigenous communities are in a state of neglect and family structures are at risk with divorce rates and single-parent families continuing to rise. While the Australian government is quick to point out we are now earning more money than ever before, it’s hard to see how economic rationalism and open market agreements are actually making you and me any happier.
Gross domestic product versus gross national happiness
How have we got it so wrong? For a start, the index Western countries use to measure economic activity, gross domestic product (GDP), has become one of the Federal Government’s favourite ways to measure success and therefore (it is assumed) wellbeing. The GDP was never intended for this use, especially when you consider that (a) all market activity is counted towards this figure, including car accidents, oil spills and even murders, because they generate economic activity (new cars are bought, people are employed to clean up spills or investigate murders and so on); and (b) all non-market activity, such as voluntary work, child raising, protesting for human rights and other forms of “free” human activity, is not recorded by the GDP.
There’s a whole other world of human effort and interaction that’s not being registered by the GDP, though without these tasks being done, there would arguably be little or no value in our lives. Perversely, we as a society are driven by the urge to acquire what we don’t have, always comparing ourselves with others in greater and lesser positions of wealth to give us a relative feeling of success. The reality is there will always be some people who are worse off than you and some who are better off. This way of thinking is a trap, because the comparisons are never-ending — as soon as we reach a desired level of “comfort”, the bar is raised again, fuelled by our desire to be as happy as so-and-so appears to be.
But that’s just it — our value system is all about appearances and the way we perceive things to be. Step into the life of someone you consider better off than you, especially if it’s someone you’d like to emulate, and you’ll quickly find their level of success depends on how they rate themselves against their own role models. Chances are they too will feel they have a long way to “catch up” to be more like someone they admire. Searching for external causes of happiness is more likely to leave you feeling exhausted and decidedly unhappy, as the goal is somehow always just out of reach.
Can we measure happiness?
The Kingdom of Bhutan’s pursuit of happiness over and above economic development is a deliberate, conscious decision based on observation of developed countries and the choices we have made. Until the early 1960s, Bhutan was in a state of self-imposed exile from the rest of the world. This has enabled the country’s decision makers to look at what has and hasn’t worked for Western cultures, with all our technology and infrastructure, and hopefully choose a more enlightened course of action as they quickly catch up to the rest of the world.
And the rest of the world is beginning to watch their development. Already, the concept of Gross National Happiness has set off lively debate between proponents of differing ideologies. Some say Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness is too heavily based on perceptions, with no real way of measuring happiness other than by an intuitive understanding of what is thought to provide the right conditions for wellbeing. The concepts behind Gross National Happiness have been criticised for being too vague and based on utopian fantasies.
Measuring its success is a complex issue. That there has never been a poll to measure people’s happiness in Bhutan is seen by some observers as proof that what they’re trying to achieve is too esoteric. But polls and statistics are not the only ways to measure things. The Bhutanese rulers would argue that you can evaluate people’s levels of happiness by looking at how they live and whether they are achieving what they want to in their lives. Far from being a simplistic approach, they say that happiness is perceived intuitively, which is perhaps the reason why many Western leaders cannot come to grips with the basic concept of Gross National Happiness — does it require too great a leap of faith?
Some countries, however, are recognising the potential of using their citizen’s sense of overall wellbeing to serve as an indicator of national success. In the US, UK, Italy, France and Germany, governments are beginning to research the idea of Gross National Happiness to find out how they might be able to incorporate it into their policy directions. While these countries are likely to rely on polls and statistics at first, it is at least a step in the right direction.
Serious academics have spent decades working out ways of defining and measuring happiness, and despite their reductive tendencies, figures on wellbeing and happiness can provide useful information for social research. Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Utrecht University in The Netherlands has created a World Database of Happiness, which collates survey data from countries, including Australia, and looks at factors such as consumption, lifestyle, demography, education, politics, law and order, values, freedom and, of course, happiness.2
Finding meaning in an increasingly materialistic world
All this information is useful to Bhutan, too, for identifying areas of policy development to achieve Gross National Happiness, but they refuse to fall into the trap of trying to measure happiness as a rank or figure. The way of life in Bhutan is significantly different from Western traditions, making direct comparisons difficult. For example, people in Bhutan live in extended family arrangements, with many generations often living under the same roof. This has implications for social services and the types of government assistance required. There are also a lot of strict traditions and customs that influence the direction of people’s lives. In the West we’re presented with a far greater range of influences and life choices.
A major challenge facing the Bhutanese people, in fact, is the introduction of Western culture through television, music, shops and advertising. Since the arrival of television in 1999, the Bhutanese have been exposed to the glitzy modern lifestyles portrayed by Indian and American TV shows. In some ways this has reinforced the resolve of the Bhutanese to protect their own unique culture, but it has also produced a generation of young people eager to experience this other world. They’re travelling abroad to pursue tertiary education and work experience and, while the majority of them return, some are being lured by the promise of material success elsewhere.
The irony is that as fast as there are converts in Bhutan to the Western lifestyle, there are people in the West turning to Buddhism and Eastern traditions for increased happiness, health and wellbeing. Many of the initiatives Bhutan is striving to achieve with its Gross National Happiness could potentially provide answers for the Western countries whose citizens are struggling to find meaning in an increasingly materialistic and uncaring world.
Gross National Happiness is appealing because it at least attempts to set a course in a positive direction. By placing value on things such as child rearing, spiritual healing and protecting the environment, it acknowledges a far wider range of valuable human activities than any Western economy adequately accounts for. We need to support Bhutan in its attempt to create national happiness and encourage our own governments to do the same. Far from being an idealised, utopian dream as some critics of Gross National Happiness like to label it, Gross National Happiness is a conscious, holistic approach to the challenges we all face as we head towards a time of increasing scarcity of natural resources and loss of traditional cultures.
1. Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When too much is never enough, Allen & Unwin, 2005.
2. World Database of Happiness, www1.eur.nl/fsw/happiness/
Virginia Richardson is a writer, sociologist, mother and chef. Her main interest lies in creating sustainable communities. She hopes to travel to Bhutan one day and learn more about Gross National Happiness firsthand.