The Happiness Index: Putting people before profit in Bhutan

Gretchen Legler in Orion Magazine:

Happiness_magnet011DRUK YUL, the DRAGON KINGDOM, has been incognito for a long, long time. A country roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, but with less than half the population, it sits sandwiched between its giant neighbors, China and India. It has never been colonized by a foreign power and was only once unsuccessfully intruded upon by the British. It has remained a place apart—a secret, secluded jewel of a Buddhist kingdom in the lap of the Himalayas, ruled by a family of kings and queens whose pictures adorn nearly every household. Suddenly, however, it has burst upon the global scene, not only as an elite tourist destination, but as a champion in the quest for human happiness and sustainable economics, its leaders making international headlines as they invite other nations to wake up and get on board with the pursuit of Gross National Happiness. GNH, as the Bhutanese call it, was conceived of by the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who, in the mid-1970s, realized Bhutan could no longer remain hidden from the rest of the world like a real-life Shangri-La, but would need to modernize or risk being erased entirely. How could this be done without wrecking Bhutan’s diverse and precious natural resources, subjecting its people to unfettered capitalism, or prostituting its complex and rich Tibetan Buddhist culture to tourism? His answer was Gross National Happiness, and he is famously quoted as saying, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

…In Bhutan, happiness is not a perfect life softly cocooned in pillows of cleanliness, security, and abundance. “I like to start by translating what happiness means in our language,” he says. “Ghakey—the first syllable, gha, is a word that you can use when you say you like something, when you say you love someone; it can also be used to describe a state of elation. The second syllable, key, means peace. When we refer to happiness, we are talking about harmony, striking a balance, so you’re not just focusing on individual emotion but the enabling conditions that will facilitate an individual pursuit of happiness.” Can a country that claims in its brand-new constitution that happiness is more important than money survive, let alone thrive, in a global economy that measures everything by the dollar? How do you measure happiness? Can governments actually help people be happy? Can this tiny hermit kingdom really serve as a model for change for the rest of the world? You could argue that these are some of the most vital questions of our time.

More here.