The causes of happiness may be subjective and diverse but the experience of happiness is objective.
One indicator of this experience, said the president of centre for Bhutan studies and GNH, Dasho Karma Ura, is positive emotions such as calmness, compassion, forgiveness, contentment and generosity. The president led the Bhutanese delegation to the eighth international GNH conference on community vitality in Malaysia.
However, the experiences of these positive emotions among the Bhutanese, which fall in the psychological wellbeing domain have declined in 2015 from 2010, the GNH survey findings show.
Of the 33 indicators for each of the nine domains, the findings show that indicators for psychological wellbeing and community vitality domains have deteriorated in these five years.
The indicators for psychological wellbeing are – life satisfaction, positive emotion, negative emotion and spirituality while those for community vitality are – donation (time and money) safety, community relationship and family.
Dasho Karma Ura said that as societies develop, it tends to lose focus on community vitality and psychological wellbeing. “I think this is a universal lesson, that as we progress in development, we lose focus on them,” he said. “If we could pay more attention to these, GNH could do much better.”
In terms of community vitality, he said that the core or the ship or the mechanism around an individual is the family. “But the family is also nothing but a social invention which has to network with other families, which is the community. And this network is mainly formed only through non-economic, non-monetised exchanges,” he said. “If it is monetised, it becomes another economic transaction. So we have to measure community vitality only through non- economic exchanges of time and money giving, safety, reciprocity.”
The 2015 survey findings note its surprise while pointing out that achievements in each indicator of psychological wellbeing had decreased significantly. In 2010, 59 percent of Bhutanese reported having positive emotions few times a week. By 2015, this had dropped to 51 percent while negative emotions like anger, fear, worry, selfishness and jealousy had increased.
In 2010, 35 percent of people reported struggling hard against negative emotions. In the next five years, this struggle had risen to 45 percent. “This means one in 10 Bhutanese are struggling with negative emotions now who had not in 2010,” the survey states. “That is sobering, particularly because negative emotions are more prevalent among school students and unemployed people. And fewer people now consider themselves to be very spiritual.”
Among the nine domains, good health (13.10%), ecology (12.41%) and community vitality (11.56%) contribute the most to the 2015 GNH Index, according to the survey findings. The lowest contributors are education (9.78%), good governance (10.18%) and psychological wellbeing (10.48%).
During a panel discussion at the conference, chief researcher with the centre for Bhutan studies, Dorji Penjore (PhD) said that while no studies have yet been done, the decline in these two GNH domains could also be due to party politics, which cause communities to fragment. “This phenomenon is natural. Modernisation comes at the cost of community vitality and Bhutan is no exception,” he said.
But if community vitality such as social cohesion among family members and neighbours and practices like volunteering were lost, it would take huge resources and generations to repair the eroded values. Community vitality values such as trust and taking care of the parents, he said, has sustained Bhutan for so long. For an agrarian society like Bhutan, where its farming community is not yet mainstreamed into the formal system, Dorji Penjore said there is a need for a traditional family or community based insurance.
“If we lose these values of taking care of one’s parents, then we will need modern systems of pension and insurance,” he said.
According to the provisional findings of the GNH 2015 survey, the percentage of people having sufficient trust in their neighbours and sense of ‘belonging’ to their communities plummeted by 11 percent, making a noticeable reduction in the contribution of community vitality to GNH. Family relationships and perceptions of safety from crime and violence also deteriorated, although the degree of change was much smaller.
“These findings are striking. The patterns bring out in quantitative form the tremendous social changes that are in process in Bhutan,” the findings state. “Yet at the same time, it draws our attention to the aspects of Bhutanese life and culture that are under negative stresses – culture, community, and psychological wellbeing.”
Visiting professor Victor P Karunan (PhD) observed that in the last GNH conference, eight out of the 10 papers presented touched on individual happiness, not collective happiness. “A nation is made up of diverse people and is GNH achievable in the context of community vitality?”
There is also tension between the global north and global south, the modern and the traditional, he said. “We naturally assume that modern is better than traditional but with GNH, it is the opposite. We appreciate the traditional but in a modern system, and I see these as some challenges of community vitality.”
The GNH domains, Dasho Karma Ura said, are not hierarchical.
“In order to not be impoverished, we need to have all these conditions and so development strategists must address all these simultaneously,” he said. “GNH as a practical tool is to find who is unhappy, where are they and what is the reason.”
Sonam Pelden | Malaysia