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The Landlocked Heart of Gross National Happiness

by John de Graaf


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The tiny landlocked Himalayan country of Bhutan has been at the Center of Gross National Happiness (or GNH) studies since 1972, when its king proclaimed that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

Since then, Bhutan has enshrined the concept in its constitution and looked for ways to operationalize it and measure it.  A highlight of the conference was Karma Ura, director of the Center for Bhutan Studies and one of about a dozen Bhutanese in attendance, who explained that, over time, the Bhutanese have identified nine aspects that factor into analyses of happiness.  They include:  psychological well-being; good health; time use (work-life balance); community vitality; education; cultural preservation; environmental protection; good governance; and financial security.

They have developed questionnaires by which they assess life satisfaction in each of these areas and which they use in regular polls of the Bhutanese people.   Included are such questions as:  How safe do you feel from human harm?  Rarely?  Usually?  Always?  Bhutan uses the results of its indicator questionnaires to guide public policy.  Each decision is based on assurance that it will not lower—and should raise—overall life satisfaction.  One such analysis led Bhutan’s government to decide not to join the World Trade Organization.

I sat at a table with two young Brazilian environmentalists, and a middle-aged Bhutanese man named Tshewang Tandin.  Soft-spoken, but open and informal, Tshewang told us that their polls found that Gross National Happiness was much higher in the Bhutanese countryside, despite its materially poor life, than in the capital of Thimphu, where westernization and globalization were changing daily life at an alarming rate.  Later the same day, he gave me a book published in Bhutan and written by his 12-year old daughter.  Titled Coming Home, it is the story of a 15-year old Bhutanese girl and her efforts to fit in to the newly-westernized life of Thimphu’s children.  For me, the book was a shocker.

A change in the names and one might have heard the same story in any American suburb: children seeking popularity in school by becoming part of the in-clique of wealthier girls; cell phones and terse, often-nasty text messages; hazing of the less attractive or popular children; competition for clothes and shoes with western brand names.  Even the language mirrored American slang:  “As soon as I walked into the room I saw him.  I knew I was dead meat.”

I was saddened, but in another sense, hopeful.  I’d believed Bhutan was too different from the United States for its research on happiness to apply much to us.  Yet clearly, the human struggle between an authentic life rich in family and friendships and a media-mediated life revering material possessions and outward image, is not confined to the West.  

I was further surprised to find that, for the Bhutanese, one of the lowest polling scores comes on the issue of “time use,” defined more simply as work-life balance.  Even in Bhutan, work is expanding with consumption to fill all the moments of life.

I talked with Susan Andrews, a vivacious American with a Harvard Ph.D., who moved to Brazil in 1992 and now runs Visao Futuro, a model “eco-village” and environmental learning center near Sao Paulo.  Clearly a popular leader in Brazil, with great respect from government, corporations and activists alike, Andrews had organized the conference and invited me to speak. She told me that the time crunch is also a powerful limit to GNH in Brazil, where Natura, a natural cosmetics company that was one of the sponsors of the conference, polled its own workers using the Bhutanese model.  While majorities reported overall satisfaction in every other area, only 30% felt positive about their work-life balance.

Susan Andrews told conference attendees that standardized GNH questionnaires, developed by Dr. Michael Pennock and other researchers in Victoria, British Columbia, would soon be available for use around the world.  Pennock himself explained that the questionnaires had already been used in Victoria by a group called the Victoria, BC Happiness Index Partners.  The same results regarding time use prevailed: while 76% of Victoria residents were satisfied with their overall quality of life, only 45% felt the same toward their work-life balance.

Bhutan’s research, frameworks and results can be found at grossnationalhappiness.com.  While the country is among the world’s poorest materially, the Bhutanese have quite a high level of GNH, especially in the countryside, and especially when compared to the resources they consume.  Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in London explained his measurement of international well-being, the Happy Planet Index.  HPI divides two indicators—average life satisfaction and life expectancy—by a third—ecological footprint, to see how efficiently countries are using natural resources to create a high quality of life.

Bhutan, with a relatively low life expectancy of 66 years, relatively high life satisfaction and one of the smallest ecological footprints in the world, ranks 13th overall, a highly respectable showing.  Costa Rica is number One.  Brazil ranks 9th, highest among large countries, while the United States is a dismal 111th.  Imagine Americans chanting “We’re number One (pause) One (pause) One…”

Nonetheless, Americans will not quickly buy HPI, nor be willing to sacrifice their material comforts anytime soon, just to reduce our ecological footprint.  Still, Bhutan’s ideas about measuring GNH as well as GDP, can, and should, be taken seriously here as well.