There is a country, Bhutan, which doesn’t measure its progress with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but rather its Gross National Happiness (GNH). In 2010, 55% of Butanese citizens said that they felt satisfied with their quality of life.
Since the re-emergence of the global economic crisis, only one subject seems to be on the agenda for all nations: the economy.
Governments, struggling to meet the requirements of the financial markets, are continually making cuts at the expense of citizens’ rights, dismantling more and more of the welfare state.
At some point, governments began to think more about money than health, education, research or the cultural life of their citizens. However, there is a country somewhere in the world where an article of the constitution stops them from diminishing their citizens’ rights in the name of economic progress. That country is Bhutan.
Forty years ago, the nation decided to determine government politics using a different indicator to the rest of the world’s developed nations, and exchanged Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Gross National Happiness (GNH).
The GNH is an indicator that evaluates Bhutanese citizens’ happiness and satisfaction with their lives, their environment and the country’s policies. Based on the results, the government makes decisions by taking the needs of their citizens into account first, ahead of economic development.
This approach is reflected in the Constitution of Bhutan, passed in 2005, in which Article 9 establishes that it is the state’s obligation to “make efforts to promote living conditions which allow people to fulfil the purpose of the measure of Gross National Happiness”.
To measure GNH, the government surveys its citizens every two years, asking about the level of satisfaction people have with their current life. The survey raises such questions as: “Do you lose sleep worrying?”; “What do you spend your time doing?”; “How many hours a week do you spend in your community?” and “Would you define your life as very stressful, somewhat stressful, or not at all stressful?”.
The results of the last study, carried out in 2010, indicated that 55% of Bhutanese citizens are satisfied with their quality of life, with adolescents, soldiers and men the happiest people in the country.
One of the principle defenders of GNH is the country’s Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley. In a recent discussion, he stated that “the problem [with society today] is that we have ignored what’s necessary for the mind. As a consequence, we have become poorer and have difficulty realising what is truly important in life”.
“The problem lies in the foundations of our states, which were formed around Gross Domestic Product to measure growth. If we base our society solely around this, when there’s no growth, we have nothing”, he said.
The kingdom of Bhutan is found in the eastern region of the Himalayas. 750,000 people live there, with Buddhism as its main religion.
The country was opened relatively late to foreigners and its location, embedded between the two large powers of China and India, helped the fourth king, Jigma Singye Wangchuck – crowned at only 17 years-old in 1974 – to think differently.
Tired of the criticism of the poverty in his country, he decided to conceive of the progress of his nation as a balance between both material and mental development, to construct a developed society that was also socially and spiritually healthy. They were factors that he saw were being lost in other countries, casualties of economic progress.
In his coronation address, the monarch affirmed that the happiness of his country was more important than material progress, and so he created a commission and a study centre to realise his idea of a genuine happiness indicator that could guide the government’s future actions.
This way, the monarch guaranteed education, health coverage and economic security to satisfy the basic needs of all his people and to make them happy. Furthermore, other factors, such as a strong sense of community and the maintaining tradition, were determined to ensure that the population felt positive and would ‘progress’, resulting in the formation of strong links within Bhutanese society.
In 2004, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated to initiate democratic reform in the country and Bhutan voted for the first time in 2008 for a representative parliament.
How does Bhutan measure happiness?
GNH is based on four pillars which, according to Bhutan’s government, guarantee smooth progress. The first of these is to maintain sustainable economic development.
The second is the conservation of the environment, to guarantee natural resources for the future. The third is to conserve Bhutanese culture, so that it serves as a guide in daily life; and the fourth is good government, trusted to be a competent and transparent manager of the country’s affairs.
The initiative evaluates the happiness of the Bhutanese people every two years, using a survey of 200 questions, raising issues concerning the psychological well-being of the citizens, the vitality of the community, health, education, culture, environmental diversity, quality of life and also the government.
After the data has been processed, validated and sorted into groups by age, gender, cities, etc.,the Bhutanese government has a reliable indication of happiness, which it can then use to evaluate any deficiencies and the policies it must adopt for the future, in the same way other countries use GDP.
Countries inspired by Bhutan
Looking at the example of Bhutan, countries such as France and Great Britain also decided to begin commissioning studies on happiness in their nations, acknowledging the possibility that economic development does not make people happy.
With regards to this idea, a short while after becoming Prime Minister of Britain in 2010, David Cameron assured people that it was “time to admit that there are more important things in life than money and time to concentrate not only on GDP, but happiness in general”, he announced. His words were criticised given the deep cuts that he has made subsequently while in government.
However, the Prime Minister urged the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to analyse the figures on happiness in the UK, and the first results were presented a few months ago.
In this vein, the former President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, set up a committee – headed by the Nobel Prize for Economics winner Joseph Stiglitz – to produce a report on the socio-economic progress of the country. Sarkozy’s intention was to widen the measure of progress from that solely indicated by GDP, and to approach a better understanding of the well-being of the French population.
One of the foremost conclusions of the study, which ended in 2009, was that GDP used incorrect terms to talk about a country’s progress. In this regard, Sarkozy stated that: “Over the years, statistics have shown the economic growth of a country becoming ever stronger, but this growth, by putting the future of the planet in danger, destroys more than it creates”.
Furthermore, the United Nations has published a Report on Human Development, which analyses a series of variables, such as literacy or GDP per capita, though strictly, it does not analyse happiness and well-being as such.
However, the results of the report are interesting: countries that are rated top for progress according to GDP, such as the USA, China or India, are low-ranked in terms of GNH. Instead, the countries at the top of the UN rankings for happiness are Iceland, Norway and Australia.
(Translated by Daniela Fetta)