Is The Decades-Old Trend Of Gross National Happiness Finally Catching On?


Photo: base 77 via flickr

If a country’s GDP were the best indicator of a its citizens happiness, the United States would be the happiest country in the world.But it’s not, which means there are other factors in the mix that need measuring.

Enter Gross National Happiness (GNH). Introduced by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk in 1972, GNH measures economic, social, and quality of life factors, combining all three into a happiness quotient.

The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan was a conservative, isolated nation, ruled by an absolute monarch

Nestled in the shadows of India and China, Bhutan was closed off to the outside world for centuries. There were no Western influences of any kind -- including television and internet. The official religion is Buddhism, though there are a significant number of Hindus as well.

The national dress -- a 'gho' for men and a 'kira' for women -- must be worn in public areas.

In the 1970s Bhutan was poor, and had some of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality in the world.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck took the throne in 1972 and announced the concept of Gross National Happiness

Following the death of his father when he was 17, Jigme Singye ascended to the Bhutan throne and took over the process of modernization begun before his father's death.

At the time of the succession, Bhutan's household incomes were among the lowest in the world.

The new king wanted to bring Bhutan into the modern age, which included economic growth. But rather than focusing solely on economics, he took a more holistic approach to national development.

GNH works toward material and spiritual development complementing each other

Singye refused to compete with the West materially, believing material gain came only at the expense of the environment, the people, and the national heritage.

GNH wouldn't ask how much money Bhutan made that year -- a barometer that went against what most Buddhists would consider success anyway. Instead, the happiness of its citizens took centre stage.

From there, you can break the pillars down into smaller happiness indicators: physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality.

By monitoring these factors, the government and the people worked to create a balance that improved peoples lives the lives without imposing rampant materialism.

Bhutan's way of life continued to be radically different from that of Western countries, as capitalism presents a threat to overall happiness.

Quantitative ranking put Bhutan as one of the happiest places in the world in 2008

Household incomes levels in Bhutan are still the among the lowest in the world, but from 1984 to 1998 life expectancy increased 19 years from 1984 to 1998.

Other factors in Bhutan policy that contribute to national happiness include a law stating at least 60 per cent of its lands remain forested, and 40 per cent of the land remain national parks.

To help the nation along its continuum of contentment, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne in 2006 and coordinated the first democratic elections in the history of the country. While the people remained sceptical of a system that caused chaos in other South Asian countries, the 2008 elections were heavily attended and peaceful.

The final tally? Bhutan was ranked one of the happiest places in the world, and the happiest in Asia, by BusinessWeek in 2006.

Committing to happiness doesn't mean giving up economic development - it means understanding the importance of a well-rounded life

Economic development has occurred since 1972 -- such as the sale of hydroelectric power to India -- because a good economy alleviates poverty. Low poverty means an upgrade of happiness. In 2007 Bhutan had the second-fastest growing economy in the world.

Bhutan is hardly perfect, however. The pursuit of perfection, like other nations before them, have pushed some people out of the country altogether.

Until a Financial Times story in 1986 - GNH remained unknown to much of the outside world

In the midst of the global financial crises' -- other countries are starting to pay attention.

In 2009, French President Nicholas Sarkozy urged world leaders to look past economic factors as the sole measurement of their prosperity. Sarkozy ordered a report on the 'well-being' of 138 countries, with questions based on health, standard of living, friends and relatives, the quality of water, and the fear of expressing their views openly.

The results showed that factors such as education, personal relationships, environment and health are interrelated with overall productivity, and that world leaders would be remiss not to investigate how improving citizens lives can improve the country.

Will Bhutan stay the course, now that it's opened it's borders to the outside world?

Bhutan's labour Minister Tshering Tobgay discussed this with ABC in 2005. 'I must admit, if I were in their shoes, I'd feel the pressure,' he said. They watch television, they log on to the Internet, they read magazines, we follow what's happening all over the world.'

To date, 95 per cent of Bhutans who study abroad come back to live in their native country. But will the people continue to be content with traditional Bhutan life as the technological infrastructure gets larger and the world shrinks? Will happiness still be about loving what you have? Or will it become -- as most people in modern nations would be forced to admit -- about getting what you want?

The next few years will be huge for Bhutan, and in that respect it has pulled even with the rest of the world.

The concept of is spreading and in 2009 the 5th International GNH Conference was held in Brazil

More than 800 people swarmed to Brazil to further understand the implications of GNH following the work of Dr. Susan Andrews at the Instituto Visâo Futuro.

Leaders and policy makers gathered to discuss how to apply the practice through policy and cultural changes.

National happiness is nothing new to Iceland

The people of Iceland have known for years they were onto something as the rest of Europe slipped into relative misery as their incomes increased.

Even after being crippled by the 2008 financial meltdown, Iceland's social policies and widespread use of renewable resources continue to boost national morale.

Check out Eric Weiner's video on Iceland's geography of bliss.

How's that whole economy thing doing over here?

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