Is Bhutan the happiest country?
I have pondered over an unsettling thought ever since a foreigner remarked, many years ago,that it must be ‘beautiful, clean and everyone happy in Bhutan’ once I told him where I am from. It certainly feels good when the reputation of my motherland precedes us. Nevertheless, the understanding, or the lack thereof, of my country and the philosophy of Gross National Happiness by the foreigners and their media is disconcerting, to say the least.
Bhutan is not the happiest country in the world, and if it is, it is certainly not because of a lucky coincidence, naivety, its geographical remoteness or mysterious happy-potion in its water or air: if we are happy, we made it ourselves – the King and his Subjects.
According to the World Happiness Report released annually by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Bhutan is ranked no. 156, gauged across six factors including GDP, life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom and corruption. The notion most foreigners have about happiness in Bhutan is warped, at best, and, an absolute misinformed, in general. Even more ludicrous is the unconscious yet all pervasive notion in ourselves, the Bhutanese, to agree with anyone claiming Bhutan the happiest country.
Why Does Bhutan Matter?
A consistent three-digit ranking, both in Happiness Index (HI) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and one of the least-developed country, it should hardly attract any attention from the world. However, the exact opposite has been the experience for this small kingdom; Bhutan, a country essentially excluded from the world affairs for the most of its existence. Two world wars transforming Europe and the World into Dantesque-like existence have tangential affect, if at all. Hardly considered a piece in geopolitics game in south-east Asia until Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution– although nothing great about it except the unfathomable brutality and mass stupidity finally culminating in the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of Chinain 1950s – and the rise of new democratic government of India.
Thus emerging from obscurity and oblivion for centuries, Bhutan, today, has made its presence felt, with all the good reasons. It has recognized the exclusivity of measuring development and progress by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), developed in its modern form by Russo-American Nobel Laureate Simon Kuznets, and is the first nation to call to action to develop a holistic measurement paradigm- not an alternative- and the world today has an all-inclusive yardstick; Gross National Happiness; born and bret in Bhutan.
What is Gross National Happiness?
Numerous indices were developed to measure individual, societal and national progress such as Human Development Index (HDI), UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and Genuine Progress Index (GPI). However, they all lack the inclusive and comprehensive look to progress at individual level. Progress is ever elusive to measure, and even more complicated is the relation between national economy, societal progress and individual livelihood, and that famous (or infamous) dream; happiness.
The concept of GNH has its root in Buddhism. Nevertheless, it would be erronous to assume its applicability is limited to Bhutan or only to Buddhist populace, as at the end of the day, each and every individual seek happiness. Although not a Stoic or an Epicurean, Bhutan has recognized happiness as the ultimate goal of life, and the Legal Code of Bhutan of 1729 states that “If the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist.” The Fourth Druk Gyelpo, the architect of GNH, famously claimed that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product” and it is enshrined in the Constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan as “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness [and] The Government shall protect and strengthen the sovereignty of the Kingdom, provide good governance, and ensure peace, security, well-being and happiness of the people.”
GNH rest on four pillars of sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, conservation of environment, preservation and promotion of culture and promotion of good governance. Thus it is not an alternative paradigm but a holistic and inclusive measurement where materialistic development accounts for only a quarter. It recognize the social, spiritual, and emotional needs, as well as the material needs, of the individual, instead of being based solely on economic measures and consumption.
After all these details, its easy to understand why it is unfair and unsettling when an expatriate reduces all the effort, complexity and rationality to a single phrase ‘People in Bhutan are simply happy’: a statement ever inclined to imply an old adage of ignorance being a bliss.
Ours is just another country, we lock our doors, we password-protect our smartphones and computers, we have our fair share of greed, deceit, crime, unemployment, gang culture, alcoholism, TV soap and political drama. The only unique thing is that we try to attain wholesome progress.
So the next time you hear “So, you are from Bhutan..I’ve heard everyone is happy there..” the choice is your to inform, educate and help them see the dignity of what we have, more so of what we have not.