Sustainable development is not a choice but a necessity for survival. We have, over the last few decades, debilitated Mother Earth’s capacity to support life. Stormed by technology and economic greed, driven by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we are now at a crossroad where sustainable development is the need of the hour. Unless we collectively agree on a common vision to guide us, our society is destined to fail.
During my summer internship at the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Commission in Thimphu, Bhutan, I discovered that the Kingdom of Bhutan was one of the first countries to voice their views on GNH as opposed to GDP. They believe GNH to be a more holistic indicator of growth and development, as compared to GDP.
The term “Gross National Happiness” was first coined by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1980s, as a casual reply to a journalist’s question. He used this phrase to emphasise his commitment to build an economy that would be based on Bhutan’s unique Buddhist culture and values.
For the GNH index to become a reality, happiness has to be made quantifiable. The Centre for Bhutan Studies, an autonomous government body, spent years to develop various indicators that would become components of the GNH index. GDP was never intended to be a measure of overall social wellbeing; it has always been a measure of economic growth. Western economic theory holds that economic growth will (autimatically)enhance social wellbeing. However, the assumption that increase in wealth will lead to increase in happiness is simplistic, since happiness is an amalgamation of various factors. These factors are included in the GNH.
The Bhutanese base their ideology on Buddhist philosophy that says that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side, complementing and reinforcing each other. The four pillars of GNH are a manifestation of this philosophy. These pillars stand for the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.
In collaboration with an international group of scholars and researchers, the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars into nine different domains (further divided into 72 indicators): health, education, living standards, time use, environmental quality, culture, community vitality, governance, and psychological wellbeing. These domains help to set specific goals for the government. For example, when the GNH Commission conducted a survey, they found that a majority of people ticked ‘no’ to a question related to meditation, under the domain psychological wellbeing. The result was that the government introduced compulsory meditation in schools, thereby balancing psychological wellbeing with other domains.
Another milestone of GNH is its policy-screening tool. All public policies in Bhutan, irrespective of their origin (except a royal order or declaration of emergency), shall have to go through the GNH screening tool. The policy is screened through 23 indicators, and marked on a 4-point scale for each indicator. A score of 1 denotes a negative score, 2 an uncertain score, 3 a neutral score and 4 a positive score. The maximum score is therefore 92 (23x4), and the neutral passing score is 69 (23x3). If a policy does not achieve the neutral score it is not introduced. Both, the ministry that develops the policy, as well as the GNH Commission (for an unbiased opinion), do the marking.
The measurement of social wellbeing and happiness is complex, and although happiness is difficult to measure, the GNH index is a far more universal index than GDP. In the future sustainable development will be more important than just simple economic growth, and the GNH index can help us achieve this form of development. Bhutan, a kingdom of just 800,000 people, was recently ranked 8th in the world by a ‘satisfaction with life’ survey, despite having a relatively low life expectancy, small GDP and a per capita income of just $670. Today Bhutan has become a guiding example for western countries that are looking to transform their economies towards a path of holistic development. As responsible citizens of the world, we have lot to learn from Bhutan.
The author is an International Baccalaureate student of The Shri Ram School, Gurgaon, NCR-Delhi, India, who did an internship with the GNH Commission in Thimphu, Bhutan this summer of 2012.