bhutan.jpgThe Kingdom of Bhutan is attempting to calculate its GNH, its Gross National Happiness. And what is Gross National Happiness?

Bhutan is a small country in the Himalaya mountains between India and China. Back in the 1970s its former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was inspired to create the concept of Gross National Happiness as a counterpoint to Gross National Product, GNP being the sum total of all the goods and services produced by a country’s economy.

Most of us have learned by now that once beyond the subsistence level, the marginal value of money in creating happiness drops off rather precipitously. If we all know that material things do not bring happiness, why do we so frequently measure our national well-being by our GNP?

Indeed, many increases in GNP are not necessarily good. If we spend more money on lawyers to sue each other, GNP goes up. Is that a good thing? If crime goes up, we hire more police officers and buy bigger locks and louder alarm systems, and the GNP goes up. Is that a good thing? We can spend $120 million per fighter plane for our national defense, and the GNP goes up. But would not peace be nicer? The point is, every increase in GNP does not necessarily translate into our being better off as a nation.

Back to Bhutan: The goal is not necessarily happiness per se, which everyone must find for themselves, but rather to create the conditions under which happiness can be found (see New York Times article, “Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom,” below). Bhutan has created metrics including the 4 pillars (economy, culture, good governance, and the environment), 9 domains (psychological well-being, education, health, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality, and good governance) and 72 indicators.

I’m not quite sure how to measure happiness (what is time use?), and I am extremely wary of attempts to put hard numbers on soft things (too easy to manipulate). But I do know that relying solely or even primarily on GNP to measure our well-being is folly. It is high time that we formally acknowledge the importance of higher-order goals (such as the top portion of Maslow’s hierarchy) in our national debate.

Closing quote:
“What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 15:26)

Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom
By SETH MYDANS/International Herald Tribune
The New York Times
May 6, 2009

THIMPHU, Bhutan — If the rest of the world cannot get it right in these unhappy times, this tiny Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayan mountains says it is working on an answer.

“Greed, insatiable human greed,” said Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, describing what he sees as the cause of today’s economic catastrophe in the world beyond the snow-topped mountains. “What we need is change,” he said in the whitewashed fortress where he works. “We need to think gross national happiness.”

The notion of gross national happiness was the inspiration of the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s as an alternative to the gross national product. Now, the Bhutanese are refining the country’s guiding philosophy into what they see as a new political science, and it has ripened into government policy just when the world may need it, said Kinley Dorji, secretary of information and communications.

“You see what a complete dedication to economic development ends up in,” he said, referring to the global economic crisis. “Industrialized societies have decided now that G.N.P. is a broken promise.”

Under a new Constitution adopted last year, government programs — from agriculture to transportation to foreign trade — must be judged not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce.

The goal is not happiness itself, the prime minister explained, a concept that each person must define for himself. Rather, the government aims to create the conditions for what he called, in an updated version of the American Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of gross national happiness.”

The Bhutanese have started with an experiment within an experiment, accepting the resignation of the popular king as an absolute monarch and holding the country’s first democratic election a year ago.

The change is part of attaining gross national happiness, Mr. Dorji said. “They resonate well, democracy and G.N.H. Both place responsibility on the individual. Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual.”

It was a rare case of a monarch’s unilaterally stepping back from power, and an even rarer case of his doing so against the wishes of his subjects. He gave the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was crowned in November in the new role of constitutional monarch without executive power.

Bhutan is, perhaps, an easy place to nimbly rewrite economic rules — a country with one airport and two commercial planes, where the east can only be reached from the west after four days’ travel on mountain roads.

No more than 700,000 people live in the kingdom, squeezed between the world’s two most populous nations, India and China, and its task now is to control and manage the inevitable changes to its way of life. It is a country where cigarettes are banned and television was introduced just 10 years ago, where traditional clothing and architecture are enforced by law and where the capital city has no stoplight and just one traffic officer on duty.

If the world is to take gross national happiness seriously, the Bhutanese concede, they must work out a scheme of definitions and standards that can be quantified and measured by the big players of the world’s economy.

“Once Bhutan said, ‘O.K., here we are with G.N.H.,’ the developed world and the World Bank and the I.M.F. and so on asked, ‘How do you measure it?’ ” Mr. Dorji said, characterizing the reactions of the world’s big economic players. So the Bhutanese produced an intricate model of well-being that features the four pillars, the nine domains and the 72 indicators of happiness.

Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. Index.