“Continuous economic growth and expansion in our finite world is not a must. In fact, the current global economic situation still presents a great opportunity to give nature a rest … to reduce stress, to have more free time, to become more secure and self-reliant, and to improve the quality of our lives.”
Trying to spread the above message is the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the only country that measures its progress by the level of happiness among its citizens. During my recent trip to this mystic land, I got an opportunity to witness in person the philosophy and culture of placing the emphasis on happiness and well-being, rather than growth.
In 1972, the 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, declared Gross National Happiness to be more important than GDP, and from this time onward, the country oriented its national policy and development plans towards GNH. The policy believes that the architects of the original deal, which enshrined Gross Domestic Product as the global accounting system, did not consider the limits of nature’s ability to support human activity.
The Bhutan government says its idea of happiness “has nothing to do with the common use of that word to denote an ephemeral, passing mood… happy today or unhappy tomorrow due to some temporary external condition like praise or blame, gain or loss.Rather, it refers to the deep, abiding happiness that comes from living life in full harmony with the natural world, with our fellow beings, and with our culture and spiritual heritage, — in short from feeling totally connected with our world.”
As outsiders, we realize that “our” modern world and particularly its economic system, promote precisely the reverse… a profound sense of alienation from the natural world and from each other. Cherishing self-interest and material gain, we destroy nature, degrade our natural and cultural heritage, disrespect indigenous knowledge, overwork, get stressed out, and no longer have time to enjoy each other’s company, let alone to contemplate and meditate on life’s deeper meaning.
A perfect example to explain the above point in detail would be how India and Brazil went towards the path of economic development. Between 1990 and 2008, the wealth of Brazil and India as measured by GDP per capita rose 34% and 120% respectively, yet natural capital, the sum of a country’s assets, from forests to fossil fuels and minerals, declined 46% in Brazil and 31% in India over the same period.
The work on Brazil and India illustrates why Gross Domestic Product can be considered inadequate and misleading as an index of economic progress from a long-term perspective.
On the issue of well-being and happiness, it talks of nurturing the values, wisdom, and practice of our spiritual traditions, as well as drawing on indigenous values and knowledge to develop appropriate policies. It talks of empowering women and educating girls, supporting local economies and strong community networks, strengthening social supports through family, community, and workplace and promoting vibrant, critical, creative and responsible media.
Its constitution mandates that at least 60% of the country remains under forest cover in perpetuity and its stated policy is to be 100% organic in its agricultural production.
All of the above seem to be working quite well so far. Imprints of Buddhist culture, traditions can be seen at every turn, corner in the country. The spirit of community is well alive and functioning in all corners of society.
In the last 20 years Bhutan has doubled life expectancy, enrolled almost 100% of its children in primary school and overhauled its infrastructure. The infusion of GNH into education has also meant that children are taught basic agricultural techniques and environmental protection alongside Maths and Science.
All these policies have made Bhutan being held up as a sample case for a developing country that has put environmental conservation and sustainability at the heart of its political agenda. This next generation is going to face a very scary world as their environment changes and social pressures increase. We need to prepare them for this.
At the same time, it is imperative that Bhutanese people maintain the fine balance of nature and technology, modernization. The Modern King along with the government, also seems to be committed to bringing this fairytale Himalayan kingdom into the 21st century along with the rest of the world. From abandoning the age-old norms of polygamy to finally bringing TV and internet to the lands of Bhutan to even public kissing… !!!
Despite its focus on national well-being, Bhutan faces huge challenges. Given Bhutan’s Buddhist heritage, it is not surprising that its philosophy is based on the idea of inter-being. While it is seeking to achieve its own sustainable development, it recognizes that it will fail if it does not help convince the rest of the world to change. Its GNH model could eventually crumble in the face of increasing environmental and social pressures and climatic change. Bhutan just cannot solely survive the war against global warming…
Consternation among the old-school Bhutan about TV and Internet damaging the unique Bhutanese culture of family, spirituality and community vitality is a valid concern, given the worrying trend in Bhutan of increasing mental health issues, gang culture and divorce rates.
On the other hand, Bhutanese now possess the necessary tool to allow them to form strong social networks and to put forward their views in global discussions. In the next few years, the increasing exposure to the world through internet would further open eyes to the differing cultures and might even change the ‘notion of happiness’ for them, so one can only hope that they realize the importance of what they have in place in their community.
To give them due credit, they’ve managed it pretty well so far… As our local guide for the trip quite precisely put it during one of the conversations regarding future of Bhutanese culture, "The youth are always proud to be Bhutanese. They want to be forest rangers, environmental scientists and doctors. They want to serve the nation and protect it’s ideology. At the same time they want to travel the world, listen to Korean pop music and watch Premier League… !!"
And I hope, that maybe they are also successful in spreading the message of “economy of happiness” across !!