In the light of the ongoing global financial crisis, it’s hard not to wonder if there might be an alternative to a current, broken financial model. As it is, the tiny, mountain-bound country of Bhutan found one more than 40 years ago. While other nations were busy restructuring economies and infrastructure in the service of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product), Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, wondered if a better path would be to pursue projects that would make his subjects happier, rather than his nation richer. In short, he wondered if a country could be better judged by its emotional wellbeing than its price tag. He dubbed this alternative measure of success Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Inspired by Buddhist teachings, GNH is based around four pillars: socio-economic development, protection and promotion of a vibrant culture, environmental conservation and good governance. Each new government policy and each new development is measured by how it will affect these pillars, rather than how it will generate profit. If a policy won’t contribute to an increase in GNH, it is sent back to the drawing board. The overall GNH index—the assessment of a nation’s happiness—is calculated by reference to nine domains, which include health, education, community vitality, ecological diversity, psychological wellbeing and standard of living. A nationwide survey then assesses the wellbeing of each household. A household is considered happy when six of the nine domains—or 66 per cent—have been met.
It all sounds somewhat naive to the ears of this jaded Westerner. Indeed, critics have argued that the criteria by which GNH measures its achievements are vague and subjective. Furthermore, Bhutan remains one of the poorest nations on the planet. Many of its 800,000 people live without electricity and a quarter live on scarcely more than a dollar a day. It is also struggling to deal with external pressures, including climate change, a spike in food prices and internal unrest—specifically a growing gang culture.
Yet in the last 20 years, life expectancy has doubled and close to 100 per cent of primary age children now attend school, where they benefit from a curriculum designed around the GNH principles. (Alongside more traditional classes, children are taught about green agriculture and encouraged to meditate.) Environmental initiatives, including a drive to become wholly organic and carbon neutral, stand as an exemplar to wealthier nations who bicker about the cost of addressing climate change.
Ultimately, GNH remains a work in progress for Bhutan. Indeed, it might best be viewed as an aspirational system— its successes to date serving as a reminder to the rest of us that a fat wallet is not always the best goal. Other nations are starting to take notice. GNH centres are beginning to pop up all over the world, including Australia. In 2011, the UN endorsed Bhutan’s call for a more holistic approach to international development and is currently considering how GNH might be implemented on a global scale. Now that really would be something to feel happy about.