Bhutan’s Happiness Paradigm, Up Close and Personal

Alison Singer’s recent post about Bhutan introduced the country’s Gross National Happiness initiative. I thought I’d follow up with some personal impressions from a visit to Bhutan earlier this month to attend a conference sponsored by the secretariat of the New Development Paradigm. The NDP is the Bhutan government’s initiative to create a widely applicable alternative template for development that focuses on the conditions supportive of true wellbeing, and uses indicators reflective of those conditions rather than defining “progress” in terms of rising GDP. The conference drew together about 40 members of the initiative’s international expert working group and some support staff (that’s where I fit in) to hash out the preliminary details of the template.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck of Bhutan, with New Development Paradigm Working Group members and staff, February 2013.

Bhutan’s government is doing the world a major public service with this effort, as it’s obvious to all but willful deniers that the conventional paradigm of development—high energy- and resource throughput in pursuit of rising GDP, heedless of consequences—is ecocide. But what about the country itself? Bhutan’s coinage of Gross National Happiness in 1974 was and is revolutionary, but it has invited caricature: even when people are aware of the country, they may imagine a kind of Shangri-La, not lost after all. Photographs of Bhutanese people typically show broadly smiling children—and indeed, most of the kids I encountered on the street had ready smiles and greetings, in English.

On the other hand, wandering around the capital, Thimphu, revealed crowds looking much like those in any other city, intent on the business at hand, hardly lost in bliss. Transitioning through the airport in Bangkok, we saw returning Bhutanese checking big flat-screen TVs as luggage, and even the crudest shack in the countryside is likely to mount a satellite dish on the roof. Some 44 percent of the total population of a little over 700,000 are farmers. The CIA World Factbook puts per-capita income at about US$6,500 per year. Paro (where the airport is) and Thimphu have a raw, hardscrabble appearance, while for the most part the countryside looks as if it has changed little in generations, if not centuries.

But there I go, equating wellbeing with material improvements—which to some extent misses the point. In their descriptions of the new paradigm, the Bhutanese scholars are careful to note that “happiness” does not mean the passing surge of pleasure that one might get from, say, winning $50 in a lottery or buying a new car. It’s the pursuit of that kind of ephemeral happiness, which recedes before us as fast as we chase it, that fuels consumerism and is killing the planet. Instead, they’re talking about the kind of deep contentment that comes from being supported socially with a decent education, good health care, an intact environment, sound community, and so on.

Are the Bhutanese happier than the rest of the world, for all their emphasis on happiness and wellbeing as the goal of development?

Various indices ranking countries by happiness, however defined, don’t put Bhutan at, or even near, the top; those spots seem reserved mainly for northern European countries—which have both high per-capita incomes and extensive social infrastructure. Bhutan is not there yet—and they know that. In A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index, from the government-affiliated Centre for Bhutan Studies, the authors note that “…most Bhutanese enjoy sufficiency in value, safety, native language, family, mental health, urbanization issues, responsibility towards environment, satisfaction in life, government performance, healthy days and assets. …Less than half of Bhutanese enjoy sufficiency in literacy, housing, donations, work, services, schooling, cultural participation and knowledge.”

Is happiness a warm puppy? Our home-stay hostess' younger son.

Is happiness a warm puppy? Our home-stay hostess’ younger son.

On personal observation, the Bhutanese don’t appear noticeably un-happier than any other people I’ve seen at first hand, either—despite a standard of living, measured in conventional terms, that is significantly lower than developed-nation levels. During our one-night home stay at a farm deep in the countryside, our hosts graciously gave up their own bedrooms for us. The rooms were unheated and the temperature inside dropped to about 40 degrees F. In the morning we all took turns using an outside squat toilet; the first person to use it had to break the ice on the sluice bucket. I came home much more deeply appreciative of central heating and modern plumbing. But I also realized that delivering such wellbeing-supporting amenities would hardly require per-capita GDPs in the US$50,000–100,000 range, and that if I had never known them, their lack would have had little effect on my life.

And maybe that’s the point: the effect of material surroundings and amenities on perceived quality of life is radically relative: above a threshold, it depends more on what you’re used to than on some absolute level of wealth. Establishing a floor by means of good education, health care, sanitation, employment opportunities, public infrastructure, good governance, and so on, should create the conditions for basic satisfaction with life—at least that’s the hope and theory at work in Bhutan. (Will the flood of affluence imagery poured into Bhutanese homes by those big flat-screen TVs undermine the theory?)

Beyond the fundamentals, as some of the working group members argued, a person’s “aptitudes” for happiness take over. Those are probably the outcomes of one’s genetic temperament and how well one’s parents taught such intra-personal skills as mastering impulses, sticking to difficult tasks, and so on. It’s not clear what any development paradigm can do about that, although growing up in a strong community seems a good way to provide kids with a variety of role models.

Whether or not the new development paradigm gains traction in the rest of the world, it will be fascinating to see what the Bhutanese achieve in the next 20 years or so.



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