The Landlocked Heart of Gross National Happiness

| 12/4/2009 1:50:48 PM

Tags: De Graaf 3,

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.

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