After two weeks living in Bhutan and a series of discussions with locals and policy experts working in the country, I can’t help but reflect on just how hard it is to implement the country’s governing philosophy, Gross National Happiness (GNH). The key challenge at hand in Bhutan is finding the right balance between GNH’s four foundational pillars: Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; Conservation of the environment; Preservation and promotion of culture; and Good governance, the critical element that holds any country together.
GNH, as a philosophy in Bhutan dates back as far as 1972 when the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that Bhutan would pursue ‘happiness’ in its path towards development, rather than measuring progress merely through growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This philosophy has recently raised Bhutan’s profile on the international stage – touted as the ‘last Shangri-La’, inspiring work at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with their ‘Better Life Index’, and even leading dialogues at the UN General Assembly on how to create a holistic sustainable development paradigm through the pursuit of happiness.
But, what does the pursuit of ‘happiness’ really mean? A quote that I stumbled upon this morning by John Lennon sums up the concept beautifully, as well as the tension of its pursuit in today’s society. He wrote: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
In our dominantly capitalist society, happiness is often equated with the accumulation of ‘stuff’, with ‘being someone’ or ‘doing’ things to climb the social and economic ladder. But is that really what makes us truly happy? There is a whole body of work that aims to explore and analyse what makes people ‘satisfied’ and ‘happy’ in their lives, including a book that I am currently reading, Engineering Happiness: A new approach for building a joyful life. The book’s authors outline the six laws to building a happier life that are governed by one simple equation: happiness equals reality minus expectations. To put it much more simply than the author’s work deserves: by learning to set expectations appropriately it’s possible to engineer a happier life.
How, though, to manage expectations of a country like Bhutan, which is amongst the smallest economies in the world, when those around have so much ‘more’? Since my arrival here, the key theme dominating the news and political debates is the challenging state of the national economy; which to be fair, dominates headlines in almost every country around the world these days. Even still, with rising youth unemployment and a financial liquidity crisis, some are saying that economic development may be falling by the wayside in the pursuit of GNH.
Should Bhutan take advantage of opportunities to tip the GNH scale in the direction of economic development through the creation of a domestic economy based around local employment and sustainable use of their vast resources? Or would this lead the country in a downward spiral of resource exploitation, and ultimately degradation?
While economic opportunities certainly exist, finding the right balance between economic development, and the other three pillars of GNH is certainly challenging. It will be interesting to see how the pursuit of happiness is defined in Bhutan, as it cautiously opens its doors to the global economy, and the rising expectations that come with it.