Does Bhutan hold the key to happiness- and can we make a copy?

KF- Editor and Writer

In the early 1970s the small Buddhist nation of Bhutan announced a concept that made most westernised countries nod along as parents supporting their child’s wish to be a princess with loving but ultimately condescending support. King Jigme Wangchuck, when asked by a reporter what the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Bhutan was, replied with the now famous line “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP)”. This was the next natural stage in Bhutan’s philosophy since the Legal Code of Bhutan 1629 had stated that “if the Government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for the Government to exist.” Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist nation, sitting quietly between industrial giants China and India, it covers just 38,364 sq km and is considered a developing nation. With this in mind it’s not hard to see why the westernised world held serious reservations about Bhutan achieving something none of their own developed nations had managed to come close to: a society that placed happiness entirely over economic growth.

Now, the idea that the collective happiness and wellbeing of a nation is more objectively important than its GDP was not a completely new concept to the world even before King Wangchuck spoke about it in the 70s. Researchers have spent years trying to find ways to balance economic growth with a nation’s happiness, which is itself a difficult concept to define let alone measure in a quantifiable way. Happiness means different things to different people. Surely it is the ultimate goal of every nation to make its people the happiest they can be or what is the point in being the most economically dominant? So how did Bhutan decide to measure Gross National Happiness (GNH), a seemingly intangible principle?

Well, they focused on four pillars of GNH: Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development; Preservation and Promotion of Culture; Environmental Conservation and Good Governance. The former pillar was displayed in an ironic fashion when the Bhutaneese King forced democracy upon his people, who were happy with their current royal system. In a move almost unheard of from those in positions of power, the King declared that Bhutan should be led by an elected leader not by someone born to power and that there should be a written constitution for the country which included the ability to remove power from a King if the people were unhappy with him. It has also become common practice for the King to abdicate (essentially retire) at the age of 60 for his younger successor to take his place. There were protests against this decision at the time, but now Bhutan functions similarly to the UK, with a largely ceremonial royal family and an elected Prime Minister. 

The pillar of Environmental Conservation is perhaps the most impressive of the four due to its successful transition from optimistic principle to concrete legislature. Bhutan places great importance on its ecosystems and wildlife for their cultural, aesthetic and ecological value but also for their spiritual value. Buddhism is a religion that deeply values nature and incorporates good stewardship of the Earth at a foundational level. This seems to go hand in hand with the focus on happiness as numerous studies have linked exposure to nature with benefits to mental health, which is the underlay to the carpet of happiness. Bhutan has managed to not only ensure that 60% of its land remains beneath preserved forest cover at all times, but also that this be written into the constitution of the country. This has greatly helped the transition between green principles to actual legislature, a leap that Westnern countries seem to struggle the most with by making green promises and failing to include any legal obligation to uphold them. It is the difference between having good intentions and actually following them through or at least giving yourself real consequences for failing to do so. The Bhutanese government also set the impressive goal of making their agriculture system 100% organic by 2020 and although progress has been made towards this, as yet it has not been achieved. 

In contrast, one impressive goal that has been achieved but has somehow gone unnoticed by the wider media is that Bhutan is carbon negative. With an economy built on agriculture, tourism and forestry and such stringent environmental conservation policies, Bhutan only emits approximately six million tons of carbon dioxide while producing just 1.6 million tons annually. That means that their 60% tree cover is actually absorbing more carbon from Bhutan and the rest of the world than they emit as a country- an impressive credential. The link between environment and economy is strong, mirroring other green economy leaders such as Costa Rica whose economic focus is ecotourism. Bhutan’s main export is the sale of hydropower generated electricity to India, which nicely links the pillars of Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development and Environmental Conservation, proving that a green economy can function without relying on fossil fuels. 

When using GNH as a framework to be applied to other countries, it is important to emphasise that such a large part of this concept relies on the strict preservation of cultural values which in this case are majorly influenced by the Buddhist religion. Traditional dress is still an everyday garment in Bhutan and Buddhist values are so key to the core values of this guiding principle that religious intolerance and persecution of non Buddhists has been a historic problem even in recent times. The displacement of minority religions and ethnicities has been justified in the name of national happiness to uphold traditional values but to the objective eye (or anyone with eyes in their head) it is nothing short of ethnic cleansing. This is the main issue when examining how GNH can be applied in other countries as ‘preservation of culture’ can often be a guise for ‘extermination of other cultures’. One can see how the concept could be used to detrimental effect in certain countries where religious persecution is already practised. In a multicultural society this issue of cultural preservation could aggravate existing tensions between particular demographics and so would need to be adapted to avoid this problem. Additionally, Buddhist culture places a far greater importance on the spiritual well being of its followers rather than materialistic happiness. However, this provides another difficulty in applying the framework to a more Westernised country where happiness and material wealth are more intrinsically linked by the culture. 

Bhutan is managing its progression towards societal happiness with widely varying degrees of success depending on the perspective chosen. In principle, the framework of GNH seems logical and well-meaning, but what would it look like in a westernised country like the UK if it was to have a positive impact? Well, for example if the UK were to adopt the pillars of GNH then ‘Preservation and Promotion of Culture’ would need to celebrate the diversity found within all four countries making up the UK and the positive contribution of immigrant families who had settled here, rather than promoting solely ‘English’ values and ostracising large groups who make up our society. ‘Preservation’ of culture must apply in the historic and physical sense, protecting castles, buildings and independent business etc. However ‘Promotion of Culture’ must incorporate progressive attitudes and must not hold back societal change, it must celebrate the leaps made in race, disability and LGBTQ inclusivity and welcome measures which produce a more cohesive society. 

‘Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development’ would see more investment in green technology and renewable energy which would bring down the cost of fuel. Incorporating sustainability into all industries ensures a less wasteful economy and would greatly contribute to the fight against climate change. ‘Environmental Conservation’ goes hand in hand with sustainable business practices and must see natural landscapes protected and promote increased societal connection with outdoor spaces. Greener lifestyles have more mental health and physical benefits which in turn reduces the stress put on our welfare systems. Conservation of local ecosystems creates better living conditions for residents with cleaner air and water, and also provides educational and aesthetic value. ‘Good Governance’ would see a leadership that follows Bhutan’s lead by testing every major decision against the principles of GNH to ask whether this will benefit society in its goal of happiness. A government that supported the other three pillars would balance more carefully economic growth with environmental health and tilt towards a greener economy. 

It all sounds very idyllic and it would be naive to pretend societal happiness would be so easy to achieve or surely other countries would have done it by now. For now it may have to remain an optimistic guiding principle rather than a new economic framework. It might not be easy to do, but in a society where we know that money can’t buy happiness, why have we structured our systems around the pursuit of wealth rather than contentment? 




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