Happiness in the Himalayas: As the World Struggles with the Recession, the Tiny Kingdom of Bhutan Is Focusing More on 'Gross National Happiness' Than Gross Domestic Product

By Mydans, Seth | New York Times Upfront, October 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

Happiness in the Himalayas: As the World Struggles with the Recession, the Tiny Kingdom of Bhutan Is Focusing More on 'Gross National Happiness' Than Gross Domestic Product


Mydans, Seth, New York Times Upfront


If the rest of the world can't get it right in these unhappy times, a tiny Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayan mountains says it's working on an answer.

"Greed, insatiable human greed," says Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, describing what he sees as the cause of the economic crisis in the world beyond his country's snow-topped mountains. "What we need is change," he says. "We need to think gross national happiness." The idea of gross national happiness, or G.N.H., was the inspiration of Bhutan's former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. In the 1970s, concerned about the problems affecting developing countries that focused only on economic growth, he conceived of gross national happiness as an alternative to G.D.P., or gross domestic product the value of all goods and services produced by a country in one year which is often used as shorthand for a nation's well-being. (See Economic Map of the World, p. 16.)

The Bhutanese are now refining the king's philosophy, which is based on Buddhist principals, into what they see as a new political science. Under a new constitution adopted last year, government programs--from agriculture and transportation to foreign trade--must be judged not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce.

Researchers have found that economic growth doesn't necessarily guarantee happiness. In the early stages of a country's climb out of poverty, incomes and contentment often grow simultaneously. But studies have shown that as annual per capita income passes roughly $20,000, happiness doesn't always keep up.

"You see what a complete dedication to economic development ends up in," says Thinley, referring to the global economic crisis. He adds that many industrialized societies now see G.D.P. as "a broken promise."

While some economists may question the validity of gross national happiness, Bhutan's example has sparked broader discussion of what constitutes national well-being. In recent years, economists, social scientists, corporate leaders, and government officials around the world have been trying to develop measurements that factor in not just wealth but also things like access to health care, family time, and conservation of natural resources.

The goal in Bhutan, Thinley says, is not happiness itself, which each person must define for himself. Rather, the government aims to create the conditions for what he calls, in a twist on the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of gross national happiness."

Bhutan has begun to embrace democracy as part of an effort to raise G.N.H., holding their first election last year after the popular king, who ruled as an absolute monarch, gave the throne to his son, who serves as a constitutional monarch without executive power.

Democracy and gross national happiness go hand in hand, according to Kinley Dorji, Bhutan's Secretary of Information and Communication. "Both place responsibility on the individual," he says. "Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual. …

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