Why Bhutan? A GNH Perspective

As Bhutanese elders would say, it was because of the blessings of our Guardian Deities, the benevolent reign of our Kings, and the good fortune of the people that Bhutan survived and thrived as a unique nation. In the context of this brief introduction to Gross National Happiness (GNH), I think Bhutan was, indeed, fortunate to have been little known and left alone for most of its history and thus given the opportunity to discover itself. Hidden deep in the folds of the Himalayas the spectacular but formidable terrain kept the world out for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the isolation was largely by design. Being a country with about half a million people in a region that is home to one third of the world’s population, a profound sense of vulnerability made leaders decide that the best strategy for survival was to remain hidden in the mountains. The result was that the people developed a subsistence farming lifestyle with a strong sense of inter-dependence and reverence for all forms of life. People not only appreciated but revered nature. This isolation and self-reliance ensured national security and also created the image of the hidden kingdom, the Last Shangri-la. This exotic brand too served Bhutan well.

Geo-political trends in the 1940s and 50s pressured Bhutan to open up and, in 1961, the country cautiously opened its doors. We opened up to a world that had just gone through World War II and a decade and a half of what was known as the “development process” with organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank, and IMF taking the lead. The wealthy countries of the “north” were rapidly decolonizing and encouraging economic development in the “under-developed” and “developing” countries, mostly in Asia and Africa. It is also significant that, for many people, development was confused with modernization and westernization.  Bhutan observed, from the state of “developing” and “developed” countries, that the world had interpreted development purely in economic terms and that, in the pursuit of an ever more materialistic lifestyle, societies were rapidly losing their cultures and destroying their natural environment, while their social systems were breaking down. In the larger sense, developing countries were no better off, and developed countries were beginning to discover that reliance on GNP to measure progress was a broken promise. It had brought greater consumption and greater dissatisfaction. Here in Bhutan, we realized that we were not only blessed with good leadership but that we were also extremely fortunate to be a late starter in the race for economic development. As nations grappled with change in the context of a development paradigm largely imposed on them, Bhutan was confronted with the challenge of drawing on its own experience to interpret the true value of progress. In the face of dawning ecological, social, and cultural crises, the world was increasingly seeing what could go wrong. Was there a possibility that it could be done right?

In 1979, when the Fourth King of Bhutan landed in Bombay, returning from the Non Aligned Summit in Havana, Indian journalists interviewed him at the airport and one asked. “We are your closest neighbour and yet we know nothing about Bhutan. For example, what is your GNP?” Then came the historic words ¾ words now seen as an expression of values like inter-dependence that an isolated society had nurtured over the centuries: “We are not concerned about Gross National Product, we care about Gross National Happiness” The pun was intended. It became a catchy media headline, with some academics then following up on what seemed an interesting concept.

The caution that stemmed from Bhutan’s sense of vulnerability ¾ call it wisdom, call it luck, call it GNH ¾ has had many advantages. Bhutan maintained a forest cover exceeding 72 percent of the land area, with 50% of its land area under complete environmental protection, a controlled tourism policy that included a ban on mountaineering even as climbers drooled over 20 virgin peaks that are over 7,000 meters, a traditional culture largely intact, close-knit rural communities (now breaking down), and other features that found their way into media headlines like “no traffic lights”. Visitors to Bhutan often say they feel they have come to a different age, a different world.

Bhutan was not ¾ and is not ¾ in a position to teach or preach GNH nor to solve the world’s problems. We face the same stresses and strains of globalization that have taken a toll on other developing nations, resulting in rural-urban migration, growing consumerism, youth problems, and the dilution of our cultural and social fabric. But Bhutan and the concept of GNH greatly benefitted from the increased attention which included questions and criticism from serious thinkers. GNH excited everyone who heard the term and it was picked up by leaders in the “development process” who challenged Bhutan: “If happiness is to be a development goal, how do we measure it?” The underlying criticism here was that the world’s greatest minds have been trying, not so successfully, to find a common definition of happiness for millennia and all we have today is confusion, even skepticism.

I believe that the first effort to interpret the profundity of the King’s statement came as a response to this challenge. The first step was to define happiness. Happiness, in the context of GNH, has nothing to do with the fleeting senses like fun, pleasure, excitement, and the thrills for which millions of people now go to Disneyland, nor with the temporarily “happy” mood we feel when we get something we want. It is the deep and enduring sense of contentment. This contentment lies within the self, so we look inside ourselves to find this happiness. Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, external sources, particularly material sources, will not enhance happiness. We need to learn to need less rather than want more. And it is also important to understand that seeking happiness within ourselves does not mean that we only care about our own happiness. It is a selfless pursuit, acknowledging that we cannot be happy if those around us are unhappy.

Based on this interpretation of happiness, Gross National Happiness is the responsibility of government to create the environment, meaning the right conditions, for citizens to pursue happiness. GNH is not a guarantee of happiness. From a societal and policy perspective, it is a vision for change, an alternative to the singular pursuit of economic development.

On the challenge to measure happiness the answer is that we do not measure happiness. Drawing on the Buddhist teaching that one cannot separate suffering from the causes of suffering, we argue that one cannot separate happiness from the causes of happiness. Thus the identification of these causes, or conditions, in 1998 by the present Prime Minister as the four pillars of GNH: conservation of the environment; preservation of culture; sustainable socio-economic development; and good governance. This has since been elaborated into nine domains meant to be measurement baskets and 72 variables that have been the basis of a nation-wide GNH survey. Thus, GNH conditions are now measured, such as, for example, the percentage area of forest cover and protected national parks, the religious and cultural institutions that the government is mandated to maintain and develop, improvements in living standards, equity, health, education, and poverty reduction, and people’s participation in the transition from a monarchy into a parliamentary democracy.

For example, 80 percent of the eligible population voted in the first general elections in 2008. The four pillars and nine domains do not represent the complete notion of GNH but they are seen core conditions of wellbeing and reflect the priorities of the Bhutanese government.

Courtesy: Business Bhutan