Bhutan‘s embrace of Gross National Happiness as an index of progress as well as its negative carbon footprint makes it seem like Paradise. But it too is inescapably caught in the grip of modernity, says Raji Menon
It’s 2017. I look around me to see technologies of unimaginable sophistication, nations beset by collapsing financial systems, and the political consequences of neglecting the growing inequality throughout the world. Where have we reached, I wonder? Most nations have achieved great economic progress and yet life around me is a mix of poverty, anxiety, unhappiness and environmental degradation in the midst of this great plenty. My reading lists, my inbox and my Facebook feed are filled with messages affirming that material gains alone will not fulfil our deepest needs. Researchers at the Harvard Study of Adult Life have been conducting what may be the longest recorded study on human happiness. And it is their observation that we are now in the era of Anthropocene (an invented term that combines two Greek roots: “anthropo,” for human; and “cene,” for new), in which humanity, through its technological prowess and population, has become the major driver of changes of the Earth’s physical systems, including the climate, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity. And that since the first World Happiness Report was published (April 2012), happiness is increasingly considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. Which, of course, brought my thoughts to Bhutan. Since 1972, it has rejected the Gross National Product (GNP) as the only way to measure progress. The Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” Since then Bhutan has chosen instead to measure prosperity through formal principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and the natural environment. Happiness is an intricate and complex idea, and it is difficult to measure. As difficult as it is to separate happiness and Bhutan. Yet sometime last year the UN ranked Bhutan 84th (of 156 countries) in the list of Happy Nations! The variables that were used – real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption – were based on Western values. The GNH index, however, relies on four pillars: good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation, and economic conservation, which now has been expanded into nine domains that contribute to the aggregation of happiness: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. Many of these are unique to a Buddhist worldview and would not be present in Western calculations. Despite this, the UN has begun studying the concept of ‘happiness’ which has been central to the Indian and Himalayan culture. However, with ‘development’ becoming the universal God, can society remain ‘happy’ and content? Bhutan, news reports say, will soon be ruled by dam companies. So is the GNH index just Bhutan’s clever global marketing ploy? Especially as Bhutan's problems range from debt, to unemployment and growing corruption. The GNH doesn’t seem to be just a political fad but rooted in something more profound and enduring – a continued deep sense of spirituality that is alive in its people and their relationship to nature. This is palpable to visitors and reflected in the simple life in its scattered villages, in the many monasteries where monks chant throughout the day, and in conversations that range from managing conflicts between wild animals. Moreover, it is evident that environmental conservation and sustainability is at the heart of the country’s political agenda. So it does seem that this index is about finding balance – between modernity and tradition, prosperity and ecological conservation, material advancement and its discontents. It doesn’t hesitate to ask its citizens about their spiritual and social lives, about health, wealth, community vitality and emotional balance. Bhutan provides free school education to all its citizens and free college education to those who work. Healthcare, including medical consultation, medical treatment and medicines, is also provided by the state. And the government believes that while economic growth is important, “it must not come from undermining our unique culture or our pristine environment”. And the constitution demands that a minimum of 60 per cent of Bhutan's total land shall remain under forest cover for all time. This makes Bhutan one of the few remaining global biodiversity hotspots in the world, and in a world threatened by climate change, a carbon neutral country. Sounds like Shangri-La, right?
The other side of Paradise
Well, here is what else Bhutan grapples with. There is poverty, especially in the rural areas, life expectancy has increased by 20 years (since 1980), and the per capita income by 450 per cent. And though television arrived only in the late 1990s, there are enduring concerns about the dilution of traditional culture. The consumer culture that we are familiar with is on the rise, and as consumption tightens its grip, Buddhism is already starting to lose its core essence for many young urban people. There is growing unemployment with increasing urbanisation and a shift away from farming as many young people don’t want to work the land, along with social problems like drug abuse. The economy is not in the healthiest of states, facing foreign currency shortfalls and remaining reliant on development aid. State-owned companies still dominate, and the country only saw the emergence of an embryonic private business sector some 20 years ago. And despite the government's intent to screen out companies that will not respect its GNH philosophy, overseas companies looking to invest in Bhutan are unlikely to put happiness ahead of maximising profits. One young lady I spoke with says that many like her have lost their sense of the sacred, and have fallen under the spell of advertising. Another gentleman, married to a Bhutanese, said that they are an independent people with a clear identity and an inherent optimism, and they take care of each other. And that they have a way of finding contentment. My good friend, Yatish Rajawat, journalist and social commentator, reminded me that happiness is a much-hyped Western concept and that GNH could be translated as Gross National Contentment’ as the Bhutanese are generally content, and contentment leads to happiness. In the Buddhist and Indian traditions, we grow up with a very strong belief in the relationship between cause and effect, so one understands that wherever you are in this life is because of the actions of your previous life. HR Coach and Trainer Santhosh Babu, who had earlier spent some time in Bhutan as a teacher, feels that free education and health care contribute to one’s security. However, he pointed out, while Bhutan’s economy may be growing, and schools are strengthening Buddhist education, there is a noticeable decline in the spirituality. He felt that Bhutan’s redefining of traditional notions of growth calls for us to look at growth in our happiness, contentment and well-being, too. He feels that economic progress had made simple living a harder sell. So what is this true happiness that everybody is speaking about? Why does Bhutan crop up in almost every discussion on happiness? I personally believe that to ensure a nation’s happiness and contentment the government needs to observe its people go about their day, how they spend their time, what they think is important, how they work, play and eat. It needs to be aware of employment, money, nature, family, kindness, actions, and climate change. When we look at Bhutan with our “critiquing happiness” spectacles, we see a lot of discomfort. And yet, most of us know contentment, happiness and sufficiency cannot be dictated by just a number. I don’t know whether Bhutan will achieve the balancing act of modernising without all the ills that traditionally accompany it. However, I do know that the Buddhist practice of following the middle path will be critical in determining whether Bhutan becomes another victim of globalisation or continues to be a beacon of hope. The thing is, change is inherent in everything and so the Bhutan of today will not be the Bhutan of tomorrow. And what of holistic economic growth and happiness? Well, it’s hard because so many things get in the way!
Bio: Raji Menon supports green innovation, grows her own greens and travels to document the interconnection of
lifestyles, health, and food.
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