Gross National Happiness

“Mr. Potts, in the midst of poverty, ever laughing. It seems then, that happiness in this life rather depends on internals than externals…” – Ben Franklin

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan coined the phrase “Gross National Happiness” as a way to define quality of life within a more holistic paradigm. Like most moral ideals, it is easier to state than to define. Nevertheless, it serves as a unifying vision for Bhutan’s planning process to balance material and spiritual development of its people, unlike Gross National Product, which only offers a materialistic construct of economic growth.

Gross National Happiness, or GNH, was created by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, indicating his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture, based on Buddhist spiritual values. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. More specifically, concerns have been identified as psychological well-being, health, education, good living standards, community vitality and ecological diversity.

“It is not antithetical to economic growth, but growth should reflect what people want,” states Karma Tshiteem, the head of Bhutan’s planning commission. “Environment, culture and tradition are the aspects that are important to Buddhist people.” Tshiteem lives in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital nestled in the hills, which is devoid of high-rise buildings, traffic jams and smog.

Officials said they have already conducted a survey of around 1,000 people and drawn up a list of parameters for being happy — similar to the development index tracked by the United Nations. The main purpose of the index is to evaluate whether the plans, policies and programs of the government conform to the GNH concept. The pilot survey revealed that 68 percent of Bhutanese could be classified as being happy, though Tshiteem notes that “Bhutan is not utopia. We are also tempted by materialism.”

The challenge will be shielding Bhutan from what is perceived as the more negative aspects of growth being faced by Goliath neighbors India and China — social upheaval, delinquency, air and water pollution, rampant materialism and the steady erosion of age-old traditions.

Perhaps we in the U.S. need to undertake a similar values assessment. While the news media is trumpeting with regularity the gloomy economic news, there is an opportunity for deeper reflection for what is ultimately important. Happiness is a choice, not dependent upon external factors, but a desire as natural as breathing.

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