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Why Bhutan? A GNH Perspective

The GNH debate has picked up, but it is mostly an exchange of different people’s perceptions of GNH. There are truths, some quite painful, being exchanged and that’s great. There are also arguments that completely miss the point, and that’s a nuisance. Many commentators, some articulate and convincing, are commenting on their own interpretation of GNH and why others do not live up to their expectations. Some commentators are commenting on their perception of what others think is GNH and why they themselves do not agree. Some are just commenting. 

If confusion is truly the beginning of wisdom, all this is wonderful. Our critics, whatever their intentions and motives, are doing us a great favour.  But Bhutanese readers must be aware of where the comments are coming from and why. A society where media literacy is relatively low needs to understand that, often, many of these comments reflect the intellect and intentions of the writers, not GNH. We should listen to all comments and analyse them to better understand GNH ourselves.

In this perspective I  am happy  to add to the confusion.

The origins

As Bhutanese elders would say, it was because of the blessings of our Guardian Deities, the benevolent reign of our Kings, and the good fortune of the people that Bhutan survived and thrived as a unique nation. In the context of this brief introduction to Gross National Happiness (GNH), I think Bhutan was, indeed, fortunate to have been little known and left alone for most of its history and thus given the opportunity to discover itself. Hidden deep in the folds of the Himalayas the spectacular but formidable terrain kept the world out for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the isolation was largely by design. Being a country with about half a million people in a region that is home to one third of the world’s population, a profound sense of vulnerability made leaders decide that the best strategy for survival was to remain hidden in the mountains. The result was that the people developed a subsistence farming lifestyle with a strong sense of inter-dependence and reverence for all forms of life. People not only appreciated but revered nature. This isolation and self-reliance ensured national security and also created the image of the hidden kingdom, the Last Shangri-la. This exotic brand too served Bhutan well.

Geo-political trends in the 1940s and 50s pressured Bhutan to open up and, in 1961, the country cautiously opened its doors. We opened up to a world that had just gone through World War II and a decade and a half of what was known as the “development process” with organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank, and IMF taking the lead. The wealthy countries of the “north” were rapidly decolonizing and encouraging economic development in the “under-developed” and “developing” countries, mostly in Asia and Africa. It is also significant that, for many people, development was confused with modernization and westernization.  Bhutan observed, from the state of “developing” and “developed” countries, that the world had interpreted development purely in economic terms and that, in the pursuit of an ever more materialistic lifestyle, societies were rapidly losing their cultures and destroying their natural environment, while their social systems were breaking down. In the larger sense, developing countries were no better off, and developed countries were beginning to discover that reliance on GNP to measure progress was a broken promise. It had brought greater consumption and greater dissatisfaction. Here in Bhutan, we realized that we were not only blessed with good leadership but that we were also extremely fortunate to be a late starter in the race for economic development. As nations grappled with change in the context of a development paradigm largely imposed on them, Bhutan was confronted with the challenge of drawing on its own experience to interpret the true value of progress. In the face of dawning ecological, social, and cultural crises, the world was increasingly seeing what could go wrong. Was there a possibility that it could be done right?

In 1979, when the Fourth King of Bhutan landed in Bombay, returning from the Non Aligned Summit in Havana, Indian journalists interviewed him at the airport and one asked. “We are your closest neighbour and yet we know nothing about Bhutan. For example, what is your GNP?” Then came the historic words – words now seen as an expression of values like inter-dependence that an isolated society had nurtured over the centuries: “We are not concerned about Gross National Product, we care about Gross National Happiness” The pun was intended. It became a catchy media headline, with some academics then following up on what seemed an interesting concept.

The caution that stemmed from Bhutan’s sense of vulnerability-call it wisdom, call it luck, call it GNH-has had many advantages. Bhutan maintained a forest cover exceeding 72 percent of the land area, with 50% of its land area under complete environmental protection, a controlled tourism policy that included a ban on mountaineering even as climbers drooled over 20 virgin peaks that are over 7,000 meters, a traditional culture largely intact, close-knit rural communities (now breaking down), and other features that found their way into media headlines like “no traffic lights”. Visitors to Bhutan often say they feel they have come to a different age, a different world.

Bhutan was not-and is not -in a position to teach or preach GNH nor to solve the world’s problems. We face the same stresses and strains of globalization that have taken a toll on other developing nations, resulting in rural-urban migration, growing consumerism, youth problems, and the dilution of our cultural and social fabric. But Bhutan and the concept of GNH greatly benefitted from the increased attention which included questions and criticism from serious thinkers. GNH excited everyone who heard the term and it was picked up by leaders in the “development process” who challenged Bhutan: “If happiness is to be a development goal, how do we measure it?” The underlying criticism here was that the world’s greatest minds have been trying, not so successfully, to find a common definition of happiness for millennia and all we have today is confusion, even skepticism.

I believe that the first effort to interpret the profundity of the King’s statement came as a response to this challenge. The first step was to define happiness. Happiness, in the context of GNH, has nothing to do with the fleeting senses like fun, pleasure, excitement, and the thrills for which millions of people now go to Disneyland, nor with the temporarily “happy” mood we feel when we get something we want. It is the deep and enduring sense of contentment. This contentment lies within the self, so we look inside ourselves to find this happiness. Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, external sources, particularly material sources, will not enhance happiness. We need to learn to need less rather than want more. And it is also important to understand that seeking happiness within ourselves does not mean that we only care about our own happiness. It is a selfless pursuit, acknowledging that we cannot be happy if those around us are unhappy.

Based on this interpretation of happiness, Gross National Happiness is the responsibility of government to create the environment, meaning the right conditions, for citizens to pursue happiness. GNH is not a guarantee of happiness. From a societal and policy perspective, it is a vision for change, an alternative to the singular pursuit of economic development.

On the challenge to measure happiness the answer is that we do not measure happiness. Drawing on the Buddhist teaching that one cannot separate suffering from the causes of suffering, we argue that one cannot separate happiness from the causes of happiness. Thus the identification of these causes, or conditions, in 1998 by the present Prime Minister as the four pillars of GNH: conservation of the environment; preservation of culture; sustainable socio-economic development; and good governance. This has since been elaborated into nine domains meant to be measurement baskets and 72 variables that have been the basis of a nation-wide GNH survey. Thus, GNH conditions are now measured, such as, for example, the percentage area of forest cover and protected national parks, the religious and cultural institutions that the government is mandated to maintain and develop, improvements in living standards, equity, health, education, and poverty reduction, and people’s participation in the transition from a monarchy into a parliamentary democracy. For example, 80 percent of the eligible population voted in the first general elections in 2008. The four pillars and nine domains do not represent the complete notion of GNH but they are seen core conditions of wellbeing and reflect the priorities of the Bhutanese government.

GNH is inspired by Buddhist thinking but it is not a religious movement. What Bhutan was able to do was to find the skillful means to identify priorities for human wellbeing that must be translated into practical policies.

GNH and Bhutan today

Are we all happy in Bhutan? No. Do we all understand GNH? The discussion on GNH in the Bhutanese media shows that there is no common understanding of GNH across our society. Some people who quote GNH in speeches discussions, and policies do not have any clarity on the concept. There are Bhutanese skeptics who believe that GNH is still just a catchy slogan that brings in wealthy tourists. GNH has been interpreted as an esoteric philosophy, an inspiring concept, a development goal, a measure of development, a wake-up call, and so on. It is criticised as a platform for ambitious politicians, a slogan and empty promise, meaningless platitudes, a purely intellectual concept, an academic redundancy, and so on. I have heard inspiring discourse on GNH. At the same time a friend recently described his children to me: “My daughter is very responsible and helps me with my business. But my son has found GNH. He goes out partying all night and sleeps all day.”

From a crazy wisdom perspective, it is all of these and none of these. I am trying to understand Gross National Happiness because I am convinced that it must be the central core of the Bhutanese narrative. In this brief discussion, I look at GNH as a value system that has had an impact on Bhutanese society at four different levels of perception and, very simplistically, discuss GNH in these four perception levels.

First of all, I see intuitive GNH values in past generations of Bhutanese who had strong mutual understanding and enjoyed an interdependent existence as members of small rural communities. The village astrologer, the lay monk, the lead singer, the carpenter, the arrow maker, the elders and the youth, all had their responsibilities. While this may be true of other rural communities of the past, the GNH element here is that Bhutan drew values from Buddhist teachings, from the experience and wisdom of our ancestors, and from the very practical needs of a subsistence farming lifestyle to inculcate a reverence for an interdependent existence with all life forms, or all sentient beings. Some examples of this are seen in the reluctance to hunt and fish, the sometimes frustrating tendency not to make decisions or take initiatives to avoid hurting or upsetting someone, and putting up with the cacophony of an unruly stray dog population. People identified their own priorities in life. In the 1980s farmers of Lobeysa were taught, successfully, to do a double crop of paddy, meaning that they doubled their rice produce that year. They refused to do it the following year because, as one farmer said: “we did not have time to play archery and khuru, to enjoy our festivals, to bask in the sun”.

Another perception level I see is the attempt to define, explain, and measure GNH, and to attempt an academic construction of the concept, both of which need much more effort. As discussed earlier, the best accepted definition of happiness is the abiding sense of contentment that lies within the self. This is related to the happiness that Buddhists seek from the practice of meditation. In one understanding of GNH as a development vision, a UNDP representative described it as a much more advanced concept of the Human Development Index that the UNDP has been refining. This interpretation came from an explanation by the fourth King of Bhutan that GNH was meant to be a higher goal for human development. Discourse on GNH, however, is inadequate and real scholarship on GNH is practically non-existent. The GNH index developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies and a set of “screening tools” currently used by the government also remain inadequate, although they have made some impact on government decisions like the stringent rules on mining and Bhutan’s decision not to join the WTO.

This takes me to the third perception level – GNH as a government responsibility. As discussed, I think the definition of happiness as the abiding sense of contentment and GNH as a government responsibility make basic sense although the translation of this into policy, legislation, and prioritized activities is very much a work in progress. In other words, we may agree on goals, values, and responsibilities, but have not refined the strategies to achieve those goals. And yet, it is the recognition that GNH must be the basis of mainstream policy thinking that sets Bhutan apart from some countries that have expressed interest in GNH. As we saw during the GNH conferences in Thailand, Brazil, Canada, some people who are doing good work among their communities – NGOs and civil society organisations – think they have found an identity in GNH. In Bhutan, however, the four pillars and nine domains have given politicians and bureaucrats some idea of national priorities. This is useful because public servants do not intellectualise policy but make decisions that have an impact on all citizens. My theory is that this is also drawn from the Buddhist logic that a King (read leader) is expected to have the wisdom to make the right decisions in the interest of the people.

The fourth perception level is the “internationalization” of the GNH discussion. Bhutan has certainly not worked out the solutions to the world’s problems, but I think we have opened up an amazing conversation and we need to give this conversation coherence and direction. The concept of GNH, even partially understood, excites and inspires people. After five international conferences on GNH and the April 2 meeting in New York, one criticism at home has been: “Stop preaching GNH overseas and make it work in Bhutan.” This is a resounding example of the need for clarity in GNH thinking and understanding. Here, I emphasise the point that we are not preaching, we are learning, out there. There is a vast amount of research and analysis and experimentation done on GNH related issues-sustainability, wellbeing, climate change, and much more – by intellectuals including Nobel Laureates, by universities and institutions, by civil society. Ecological economists, systems thinkers, positive psychologists, architects of holistic measurement systems share our views on the flaws of conventional materialist development approach that is so dominant today although we often do not know about each others’ work. Bhutan must learn from them to deepen its own understanding of GNH. International discourse can only benefit Bhutan because we ourselves do not have the capacity to undertake the necessary research and analysis required to implement GNH fully at home.


What next?

Since the turn of the century, the Gross National Happiness discussion picked up momentum as media stories took it to the international arena. Bhutan was recognized as a country with a vision. And, as much as Bhutan promoted the concept as a potential alternative development paradigm, countries that had achieved impressive GDP growth were finding something missing. This growing interest encouraged, in fact pressured, Bhutan to start expanding on the idea and operationalising it at the societal level. It became, and is increasingly, important for Bhutan to translate GNH into practical policy. But this also comes with the understanding that we cannot be a GNH bubble in a GDP-centred world. To take an obvious example, greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago or Beijing are melting our own glaciers in Bhutan. We have come to realize that domestic change is inseparable from global change. This “internationalization” of GNH has been fanned by global interest and our own need to learn from and share with the wider world.

In July, 2011, Bhutan proposed the UN resolution on Happiness as a more holistic development goal, and this was supported by every member of the United Nations. We were then mandated to organize a high-level meeting at the UN, which was held on April 2 and with a response of a magnitude that nobody anticipated. It was attended by more than 800 distinguished experts in all fields and sectors – from government to civil society, academia, business, and religion. In October, 2012, the United Nations declared March 20 as the International Day of Happiness. Even as we acknowledge that we have much to do to operationalise GNH at home, these were important initiatives that connected the growing international discourse on happiness and wellbeing with Bhutan.

As a follow up of the April 2 meeting at the UN, Bhutan was given the responsibility to draft a new development paradigm, which we are currently doing with the help of experts around the world, for presentation to the United Nations. The international working group of more than 60 experts -philosophers, scientists, economists, and other intellectuals -coordinated by a Steering Committee chaired by the Bhutanese Prime Minister, has to try to answer many big questions: What kind of social, economic, political systems does the world need? What kind of policies and regulatory mechanisms? What kind of governance structures? What kind of institutions and structural changes must we initiate?

We cannot underestimate the real challenge that this formidable task represents for a small country with a big vision. The need for a new development paradigm is still not palatable to many world leaders and people with vested interests. The middle path between those who have nothing and those who have too much will take complex negotiations. At the April 2 meeting I was warned by very credible thinkers that we would not get far because the right wing capitalists who have deified consumption and brought the world to its knees with their materialistic drive would write GNH-inspired ideas off as a leftist, socialist movement. In fact we heard this in some of the discussions in the Bhutanese media.

Bhutan has been given the task to bring together the different expressions of basic sanity that exist around the world. So how do we undertake this “mission to “change the world”? To start with, we have to come up with a visionary and practical development paradigm. We have seen, from our own experience now confirmed by global trends, that this is an urgent necessity. And what if the members of the United Nations ignore or reject such a paradigm because of the powerful systems that dominate global thinking and behaviour? We make the commitment that we will make it work in Bhutan. That, in the end, could be the most skillful means to  influence global change.

Contributed by  Kinley Dorji,  Secretary MoIC

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  1. Thank you Dasho for a thought provoking article. I was in Samsoe a big Island in Denmark, a year ago. Today that Island is self reliant with its own organic agriculture farming, fishing, power generation from wind, and has its own mayor. People are not rich there but happy. They share and care for each other.

    A man by name of Søren Hermansen told me that a young Prince of Bhutan visited this Island and took refuse in his house back in early 1970s (could have been 1971). The purpose of the visit of the Prince he told me was to find out the different development models in the world so that he could bring happiness to his people back home.

    What the Forth King propounded on, ‘GNH is more important than GNP’ did not just come at the asking of some journalist in India. It was a deep search His Majesty made as a young prince. His returning in 1975 (as one of the researcher wrote – is it 1979?) via India after NAM was the opportune time to speak out to the world his deep search and what He found was most important model for development. A model that is completely humanity centered (where nature, tradition/ culture live together with compassion, sharing, caring for each other). He knew ultimately the goal of every human being is happiness and the development model must address this – creating conditions for His people in Bhutan to practice their own deep and complete containment.

    This should be another angle to look into the birth of GNH. I would not agree that it is based on Buddhist values – happiness is in any religion. Recently, I read in a corner of Melbourne Street – ” we are not human in search of spiritualism, but we are spiritual being in search of humanity” – I think the consumerism has taken toll on values of humanity, and the GNH must and will address this may be by another two generations if it is not too late for our mother earth. People have become reflective on the pattern of their own values of life and living – the change is coming and may GNH be the catalyst to bring the change sooner than late.
    Tashi Delek for the New Development Paradigm Conference – I am also participating but as an observer

  2. GNH is recent hypothesis developed and became popular after Bhutan became democracy. Earlier GNH philosophy is very simple, no meditation or nine domine etc.
    But now, it has became so complex idea or philosophy. At present scenario it has became showcase to world. but i think is not time for Bhutan to publicize philosophy and proudly say that we must do these and that to bring world happiness, because we ourselves struggles to achieve basic happiness.
    Bhutan need to go miles ahead, just simple example about our own economy condition, we are fully depending on other countries, we can’t produce even sufficient vegetable in the market , forget about the others things.
    we ourselves is not fully fledged economy, why should we need to show case such philosophy to outside world.
    first make economically independent and self sufficient, then improve our own national power, strength and livelihood of the people. make every citizen happy by solving their minor problems.
    Example; like many people faced census problem, land problem etc
    it is not time for Bhutan to become master of GNH, let us keep philosophy in mind and make ourselves independent, self sufficient and reliable, then demonstrate to the world.

  3. Shocking things to be noted is all most all the author on Bhutan GNH are non nationals. What does this indicate? Do we lack Bhutanese intellectuals to develop literature on GNH? We have around 15000+ Master Degree holders and few countable PhDs, why they are not interested to contribute some to GNH.

    The biggest and greatest flaws is what if we can’t preach or practice our own concept of GNH. Because we also now aspire like any other developing countries to economically prosper. If we want to achieve some in the field of economic, there is no other way than to being materialistic and aim to consume more. Simply preaching the concept will not help

  4. A thoroughly analyzed and well-written article. It gave me a complete picture of where GNH comes from and where it now stands for Bhutan and the world.

    I do agree with the author that this profound thought does need to be shared, experienced and further developed with the rest of the world, where materialism is slowly breaking down societies and wearing down the spirit. Despite an overabundance of wealth, people in the West are not happy and realizing that there needs to be another paradigm/way of thinking.

    However, I do feel that while sharing GNH, we must also be able to practice it here on our own soil.And how do we do that, while still uplifting out people out of material poverty? Can we practice GNH while still functioning in a Capitalistic paradigm? Or do we change the paradigm completely? And what would that new paradigm look like?

    Thank you la for this thought-provoking piece.

  5. It is simply matter of to what extend we should wonder, perplex and rage when senior citizens (so-called GNH experts) of Bhutan interpret concept of GNH in 1001 ways. They just blame innocent people for having misunderstood the concept of GNH, without realizing the origin of such misconception. Today, secretary of MOIC has something to say about the GNH, and tomorrow it is definite that another senior citizen would say his/her something different. There is no way that rest of the people will have concrete meaning of GNH in them.

    I am a Bhutanese citizen. I feel no shame to declare that I know nothing about the GNH. Now I am proud of someone who had propelled GNH even to the farthest and renowned organization like the UNO. However, I am wondering why there is a question of framing a new developmental paradigm. I can understand that some lapses exist in the present paradigm that does not go well in some corner of the globe (???could be in Bhutan). That is true! Errors are discovered only after presentations in meetings and seminars. Changes will be there. Now the question is, “why there are about 60 great philosophers, economists and scientists involved in drafting the new paradigm when Bhutan was identified as origin of GNH? ” “Where have our so called GNH experts of Bhutan gone?” “Who organizes GNH conferences for civil servants in Bhutan?” It really does not look like those people have fair idea of what GNH is.

    I have a feeling that these folk of experts will definitely shape the GNH into everybody’s teddy, but I am scared that true concept of GNH will be further misinterpreted. I don’t think our prime minister as chairperson can debate the intellectual power of these experts and hold all rights of dos and don’ts. Very soon, Bhutan will start hiring people from foreign land to teach GNH to our citizens. That will be awesome. Cheers.

  6. So what do we expect to change having read your version of GNH? Just another perspective is not enough. I have mine and my friend his, my enemy has one too. Just as in ancient India elaborating the syllable OM became four Vedas, eighteen Puranas, sixty four Geetas, and 108 Upanishads GNH is heading a way of becoming economics of environment, philosophy of politics, law of cultures, theology of 22nd century and system of indoctrination with geometry of brain.
    Politicians have an excuse now, true concept of GNH has changed beyond cognition.
    It is meditation for small kids, four pillars for secondary students and nine domains for graduates today. Did it begin this way? Will it remain like this? No, not, never.
    We have lot more than GNH to discuss, there is no harm discussing it further.
    It will become a large concept within which lie god, time, space mind, matter and void.

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