The wisdom in GNH
Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” declared King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan in 1972, when he first coined the phrase. The ultimate purpose of government, he proclaimed, is to promote the people’s happiness, which must take precedence over economic prosperity. He and the people of Bhutan believed in a proper balance between materialism and spirituality, and in their culture, inner spiritual development counts as much as external material development. The problem with GNP is that it is focused entirely on the latter, thus is highly inadequate as a policy goal.Some 15 years ago, I was privileged to be with a small group granted an audience with then King Jigme Singye in picturesque Thimphu, capital of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny country nestled high in the Himalayas between China’s Tibet province and India. The meeting unexpectedly got rather extended and was very rich and substantive, with us hearing firsthand about this novel concept of GNH from the very mouth of its original proponent. The economists among us acknowledged that most socioeconomic indicators merely measure means, and not ends. GNP and GDP do not and should not be taken as indicators of well-being, as these merely measure the level of economic production of goods and services and the associated income generated. But increased income does not directly imply increased happiness or improved well-being.
Textbook economics takes it for granted that happiness, technically termed as “utility,” increases with levels of consumption, and more is always better for a rational individual. But happiness is a state of mind, and arises not from consumption alone. Psychologists have long understood that happiness or well-being may come not only from “having,” but also from “doing,” “being,” “relating,” and even “giving.” As for the last, even as mainstream economic theory assumes humans to be intrinsically selfish, we also have an inherent instinct for altruism, or for caring and sharing.
How do we measure happiness, then? During our visit 15 years ago, our hosts asserted that GNH, unlike GNP, need not even be measurable to be a useful policy goal. Various scholars from around the world have since worked to find a way to quantify the concept, but the Bhutanese argued then that obsession with measurement could even undermine its very usefulness. Admittedly, GNH would not be as straightforward to measure as GDP/GNP, as standards of happiness differ from person to person.
Four major pillars define GNH: economic growth and development, preservation and sustainable use of the environment, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage, and good governance. Without the last, our hosts asserted, none of the other goals are achievable. Their government provides free education, health and other social services. They have a firm policy of keeping at least 60 percent of their land area under forest cover. Promotion of their indigenous culture is a major concern, seen in the way the men continue to wear their robe-like native attire (gho) and the women their traditional ankle-length dress (kira). They acknowledge that cultural and environmental goals can get in the way of economic growth. But their conviction is firm that the rich character of the society in Bhutan, along with their happiness, would have been diminished if they merely focused on the generation of material wealth.
To the Bhutanese, development is defined as enlightenment of the individual. Enlightenment is not solely an object of religious activity, but is a goal of psychological evolution for any person, regardless of formal faith. It is a blossoming of happiness. It is turning one’s mind inward to achieve knowledge of the self, which is crucial to attaining individual liberty and freedom, and gaining happiness. This squares with how Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen defines development simply as freedom.
When I told the King then that I was inspired to write about GNH in my column, his witty reply was: “Then you are going to make your government leaders unhappy.” It seems His Majesty knew much more of our country than I had expected.
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