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When I first read about gross national happiness in one of those unusual/weird news columns, I thought the idea of a country measuring happiness of its citizens was a complete joke. That was then, but a few weeks ago I changed my mind after visiting the landlocked country of Bhutan. It was then that I was introduced to the concept, and I don’t think it is much of a joke anymore.
The fourth king introduced the idea of gross national happiness in 1972. At that time, Bhutan was an absolute monarchy. Later, the king abdicated in favor of his son and voluntarily made his country a constitutional monarchy – no bloodshed, no coups, just a peaceful transition to democracy.
The king was a very forward-looking man, and based on the principle of gross national happiness, true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual advancement complement and reinforce each other. The king believed that every change must be developed and evaluated to ensure that it will lead to happiness, not just development, and that it is important to harmonize economic progress with the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the people.
Bhutan takes modernization quite seriously and did not legalize television until this new century. However, they are not backward in any way when it comes to very modern hotels, Internet and filmmaking projects for students. They have moved from a closed kingdom to a modern country in very short order by what they call the four pillars of gross national happiness.
In her book, “Facts about Bhutan,” Lily Wangchhuk explains the four pillars. Equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development includes making sure that any development does not ruin the environment and that service delivery such as health and education is also based on equality so that all sections of society get equal delivery. The second pillar is preservation and promotion of culture, which includes strengthening the family and community, tolerance and cooperation, altruism, compassion and dignity, which they believe impact a low crime rate. It also includes the preservation of the culture, which includes centuries-old practices and rituals. The third pillar is conservation of the environment and is based on the Buddhist philosophy that human beings and nature are inseparable from each other. They believe that nature is a partner in existence and might have been one’s parents, friends, etc., in one’s timeless existence. It is one of the top three countries in the world that has more than one-fourth of its land as a protected area. The fourth pillar is good governance which means real involvement on a local level for all levels of government. They have decentralized choices and have created block committees to plan and oversee development. Neither central committees here nor even the national Congress makes all the decisions.
Bhutan could be a case study in any graduate school of government. It doesn’t just talk about gross national happiness, it measures it. Only 3.7 percent of its population reports being unhappy and it measures its happiness with other countries on something that is known as the “Happy Planet Index,” a product of a think-tank created to improve quality of life and to offer innovative solutions to national and international problems. It was created as part of “The Other Economic Summit,” which formed to address issues such as international debt which was not addressed at the G-20 and G-7 summits. According to the ranking of the Happy Planet Index, Bhutan ranks in the top 10 nations worldwide and is the happiest nation in South Asia.
What I noticed when I was in Bhutan is that everyone feels they have a stake in their country and the wellbeing of others and not in the way of big-brother communism. It is genuine, and people believe that they impact the daily lives of others. It is subtle but is reflected in all aspects of citizens’ lives. Imagine if we suddenly made laws in this country that were the results of concern for people’s happiness. Imagine how the “debate” in the Senate would have changed on Saturday night with that perspective.
Bhutan is not a country that is interested in just reaping the happiness for itself; it’s interested in spreading it throughout the globe. This week there is a conference in Brazil, its fifth International Conference on Gross National Happiness with topics such as holistic management of people and the financial crises as well as economic democracy. Bhutan aims to take its concept to the world and will attempt to get other governments to pay attention to what can make citizens happy in the long haul. I just wish that our Congress had spent the weekend at the conference instead of talking at each other in the Senate on health care; it would have been more fruitful.