Gross National Happiness (GNH):Heavier than a mountain

COMMENTARY:29thNov.,2008- GNH is the expression of a system of values that defined the Bhutanese system over :enturies. Today, Bhutan articulates the need to preserve such traditions and values on the premise that what we have is good and should be preserved through change.

Having opened up to so-called planned development, Bhutan is aware that rapid change will threaten all this, so it is seeking the clarity and credibility of a GNH society and a GNH economy by trying to give the concept intellectual depth and academic construction.

To say that GNH is doing fine in Bhutan would be wrong. The truth is that Bhutan is changing rapidly and society is not responding fast enough.

Even many decision makers today believe that GNH is just a phrase to attract wealthy foreign tourists. The skepticism is obvious from the fact that very few decision makers took interest in the fourth international GNH conference in Thimphu this week.

The young professionals, who did attend the conference, need to begin a new wave of discourse to intellectualise GNH. Decision makers must be forced to confront GNH so that it becomes a basis for policy decisions.

The truth is that Bhutan has got a lot of mileage out of GNH. It is good to be known as a happy country and a happy people. It has given the Bhutanese leadership an international image of intellectual maturity.

This comes at a time when human society is nervous about human security and the international community appreciates this higher goal for development and progress. They think Bhutan might have the answer – a new paradigm for development.

But this is an image and a reputation that Bhutan is yet to earn.

The fourth international conference was productive, with 25 nationalities represented and 65 papers documented. The papers ranged from early childhood to dynamic aging, ideal societies to broken communities, eco villages to environmental disasters, psychological disorders, nature-deficit disorders … in fact, from happiness to Gross National Happiness.

Today, GNH is spreading around the world. There is a growing GNH community and growing international discussions. But the conferences need better focus. The trend is that 20 different people come up with 20 different interpretations of GNH. The risk is that, in the attempt to interpret happiness, Gross National Happiness itself will be lost.

It is too early for Bhutan to congratulate itself. What used to be an intuitively GNH society is breaking down. Bhutan is not in a position to fix the world’s problems. It needs to fix its own. GNH is just being constructed – the policies, the institutions, the economy, and the political system. Bhutan needs to nurture a GNH culture.

On November 24, the Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley posed some challenges: “How does one go about persuading people to adopt a new ethical paradigm that rejects consumerism? Is it enough for us to know how to measure happiness and to hope that this will influence policy-making?

Is making GNH policies and programmes enough? If people do not understand and favour GNH based policies, will politicians dare and, if they do, will they succeed? How do we as academics, thinkers, scientists, leaders and concerned citizens change our own way of life and behaviour?

The prime minister appeared to be seeking help from the academic community.

The Centre for Bhutan Studies is working on indicators and tools to provide the government material to develop GNH policies. While its survey has a long way to go, there are some preliminary results – some indicators and tools. They are educative and they are a warning.

But there is a communication gap in Bhutanese society. There is the academia, including GNH conferences, on one hand. There are planners, decision makers, and implementers on the other. There are some indicators and tools on one hand. On the other, there is the 10th Plan, which is still based on old priorities.

Some GNH proponents have a tendency to romanticise Bhutan and GNH. But it is more important that Bhutanese society face the painful truths and solutions.

Yet Bhutan is one country where GNH is possible. The government, starting with the prime minister, says that it is ready to use whatever indicators are available. Scientists and academics must urgently provide the leaders the will and justification to make difficult decisions. They must be able to legislate consumption restrictions, to introduce appropriate technology, must make sure that benefits are distributed equitably, that waste is controlled, that the children are given the right education … in fact, that education is the foundation of GNH.

CBS’s GNH index may have a long way to go – but shows the current profile of Bhutan society, with some frightening – if not surprising – clarity. From a GNH perspective, Thimphu ranks the lowest, the reasons being the dilution of culture, community vitality, psychological well being, spirituality, and environment. Haa and other remote places are at the top.

But the real problem is that Thimphu residents claim that they are happier. Rural people all aspire to move to Thimphu. This is because, materially, Thimphu is better off. One study showed that Thimphu residents earned Nu 320,000 compared with Nu. 20,000 in Wangduephodrang.

This subjective analysis shows a complete absence of GNH. They show that Bhutan is no different from any other developing country in the world. And the question it raises is, what went wrong with the long-held policy of regionally balanced development?

There was another striking example at the conference. During a session on psychological well being, an international participant asked Bhutanese psychiatrist, Dr Chencho, “In this strongly Buddhist society, your monks must be helping you counsel your patients?” The answer was that the hospital has one monk who conducts rituals.

All this calls for dramatic re-thinking. GNH must be repeatedly interpreted as a responsibility. Gross National Happiness is not a promise of happiness. Happiness is an individual pursuit. GNH is a mandate of the state, a responsibility of the government, to create the right environment for our citizens to seek happiness.

While people must be empowered, GNH demands that leaders must have the wisdom to exercise their responsibilities. GNH must provide the insights and methods that can contribute to responsible leadership. GNH must continue to rely on enlightened leadership, which will be strong enough and imaginative enough to inspire change.

Bhutan has a young King, who is the guardian of the people’s interests and the guardian of GNH. GNH has been an intuitive vision of the Kings in the past. With the democratisation of the Bhutanese system, GNH discourse has become vital to develop conscious intellectual thought and ethics and imagination among the new leaders.

His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo introduced democracy like a Vajrayana shock treatment. In his wisdom, His Majesty decided that parliamentary democracy was the best path to good governance. His Majesty decided that the best time for change was now, meaning 2008 and 2009.

As of March 24, Bhutan has a new political arrangement that has come in on the GNH platform. The Prime Minister is a champion of GNH. Can 2009 be a new beginning? Will GNH be debated in the next session of parliament? Will the 10th Plan assume a stronger GNH perspective?

For Bhutan democracy is not the goal. It is a path to good governance which is a pillar of Gross National Happiness. Both GNH and democracy demand the empowerment of the people.

But the conference has also thrown up the next question. Where do democracy and GNH actually meet? People point out GNH functions best under a strong leadership. Understanding this is another major challenge.

For Bhutan the questions are piling up faster than the answers. Many speakers re-emphasised the need for GNH in today’s world to deal with wars and conflicts, a climate crisis that threatens the life of the planet, unsustainable societies, financial crises that come up again and again.

Apart from the inadequacy of GDP, scientific and technological fixes are not going to work. Western enlightened thought – some call it reason – does not provide the answers.

The conference also suggested good examples of innovative measurement systems around the world. Canada’s GPI, France’s quality of life, many studies on well being in the U.S., the OECD measuring progress of societies, the EC’s Beyond GDP, many initiatives in the UK. There is much to be learned from the real architects of these initiatives. As much as GNH is unique to Bhutan, there is much to be shared outside Bhutan.

It is also time for young Bhutanese men and women to take up GNH thinking. There is much to be learned from similar schools of thought in history and from existing international experiences and innovations. A generation of young scholars must give GNH more depth and continuity.

What will truly be unique is, not so much the concept, but that GNH will be mainstream in Bhutan. It will be central to the government’s policies, institutions. It will be the strength of Bhutanese intellectual culture for the future.

While GNH travels around the world, there is a resounding message that comes through loud ad clear. It is a good idea but first make it work in Bhutan. This is the real challenge. For Bhutan, GNH must be the skilful means for survival. For the Bhutanese people, therefore, GNH is a responsibility, that is heavier than a mountain, more precious than gold.

By Kinley Dorji (

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