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Bhutan and the GNH Factor

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“When we contribute to the common good, we ourselves are enriched. Compassion promotes happiness and will help build the future we want.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on the first International Day of Happiness, March 20, 2013.

The General Assembly of the United Nations in its resolution 66/281 of 12 July 2012 proclaimed 20 March the International Day of Happiness recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.

Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, sandwiched between the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, lies tiny Bhutan (population 800,000), a country which has recognized the supremacy of national happiness over national income since the early 1970s when it adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross National Product (GDP).

Carolyn Cowgill and I have just returned from an 18-day trip to this most beautiful of countries, where populations are separated from each other by steep mountains and valleys and fluttering prayer flags and groaning prayer wheels send their messages on the wind. This trip challenged our western beliefs and showed us a different way of life.

Beautiful as the landscape is, life is hard here. The original Bhutanese crossed over the high mountain passes from Tibet centuries ago to settle in this isolated area. Many villages still do not have electricity although Bhutan now has a ‘national grid’ that is slowly turning the lights on. Cell phone service, on the other hand, is available everywhere. Roads were introduced only in the 1960s and built to join the isolated villages. Mostly unpaved and narrow, full of pot holes, they twist and turn along cornishes that are not for the faint of heart. Travel is still slow and unpredictable. Because this is a mountain country, water is generally available but is a shared commodity during the dry season when it is needed to irrigate the rice fields. Indeed, most of the community disputes are about water sharing. Mainly an agrarian society, farmers grow crops of rice and barley in the north, and tropical fruits and vegetables in the south. The daily diet in the rural areas consists of rice served with very hot chilis and cheese. With the Buddhist respect for all forms of life, farm animals die of old age and are slaughtered only when needed. Cows graze freely along the roadsides and yak herders still migrate according to their seasonal needs. Families send their sons to the monasteries to be monks when there are no other options.

A matriarchal society, the eldest daughter of the family inherits the family farm although this is changing. Men and women share equally in the household chores. Women do most of the cooking and housework while the men tend the fields. During the harvest, both genders share equally in the work load. Children work long hours before and after school along with their parents.

Public education is generally available for all children up to the 10th grade and English is taught as the second language. Bhutan has one university. The more affluent Bhutanese send their children to India for higher education. Our guide explained that, while education is valued and viewed as a necessity, it can also be a double-edged sword. The younger, well-educated Bhutanese no longer want to stay on the family farm, seeking employment in the capital city of Thimpu. Unemployment is increasing rapidly and crime, virtually unheard of until recently, is a growing problem. Now Bhutan is experiencing the same issues of urbanization as the west.

By observing the rest of the world, Bhutan is learning what not to do. Protecting the environment is foremost on the Bhutanese agenda. 60% of the land mass, must, by law, remain treed. Few natural resources are of interest except for its water. Several large hydro-electric projects now under construction will eventually provide electricity for export to India. True to their environmental protection program, their rivers are not being dammed. They are building tunnels to provide the water flow needed. Of vital importance, and as a strategy to remain independent from its larger neighbors to the north and south, is the protection of its unique culture. Bhutanese are required to wear their national dress (ghos for men and kiras for women) and adhere to the Bhutanese style of architecture in their buildings.

While life is hard, family values are adhered to, the children appear happy and healthy, life expectancy is improving, maternal health care is resulting in more live births to healthier babies, education is generally available, social and cultural needs are being met, gender equity is visible, there is no prostitution and no trafficking. Buddhism is a way of life, deeply ingrained in every aspect of it. They have a constitutional monarchy and a new parliamentary system. Some of the world’s rarest species of animals and birds are found only in Bhutan. Hunting is forbidden. It has the only mountain peak in the world that has not yet been climbed.

With little to offer the rest of the world in the way of material resources, it has provided the world with a concept, the value of which is impossible to put a price tag on… happiness.

The Happiest Country on Earth?
According to Wikipedia, the term “gross national happiness” (GNH) was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King (K4), Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened Bhutan to the age of modernization soon after the demise of his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (K3). He used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously by the Centre for Bhutan Studies. Aided by two Canadians, Bhutan developed a policy lens used to anticipate the impact of policy initiatives upon the levels of GNH in Bhutan.

Bhutan is a country grounded on Buddhist ideals which believe that human society develops better when material and spiritual growth occur simultaneously, complimenting and reinforcing each other. The four original pillars of GNH, transcultural concepts not confined to Buddhist nations, are: the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

But how do you measure happiness? The Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into eight general contributors to happiness-physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. Treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, GNH is now measured using seven metrics: economic wellness; environmental wellness; physical wellness; mental wellness; workplace wellness; social wellness; political wellness. Using a scale referred to as subjective well-being, related to happiness and quality of life, allows nations to compare to each other based on this concept. Another behavioral model of GNH based on positive and negative words in social network status updates, also results in a quantitative GNH metric.

In 2007, Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 countries in Subjective Well-being, the only country in the 20 “happiest” countries that has a very low GDP.

Louise McLeod, WG-USA President

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