Why ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH)? Forget GDP

Bhutan Prime Minister Explains Metric of ‘Gross National Happiness’ : Forget gross national product. The prime minister of Bhutan says a nation should measure itself by its gross national happiness.

Jigmi Y. Thinley spoke about his country’s unusual metric to about 450 people in Low Rotunda during Columbia’s World Leaders Forum on Sept. 15. His was the first in the 2010-2011 series of forums and talks by world leaders at Columbia, a year-round event series that includes heads of state and global thought leaders from a variety of countries and fields.

Jigmi Y. Thinley, prime minister of Bhutan, spoke about gross national happiness at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Jigmi Y. Thinley, prime minister of Bhutan, spoke about gross national happiness at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum.

Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom of about 700,000 nestled in the Himalayas between China and India, has adopted an unusual and complex system of measuring gross national happiness as an alternative to GNP, the common economic indicator that measures the sum of all goods and services produced by a nation.

Thinley said GNH is based on the belief that the purpose of development and the role of the state is to create a place where people can pursue what they aspire to most in life: happiness.

“It is a holistic development paradigm to make human society resilient,” said Thinley. “We are the only country so far that promotes happiness through deliberate public policy and action.”

Thinley was in New York for a summit on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a lofty set of targets, such as reducing poverty and disease, that member nations have pledged to reach by 2015. During the summit, Thinley says he will propose including happiness as the ninth of the MDGs.

He said leaders need compassion, knowledge and strength if they are to tackle pressing global problems such as caring for the elderly, the negative effects of climate change and the proliferation of weapons.

“In our search for solutions through the multiplicity of problems that confront society, leaders must be able to rise above ideological, historical and economic fault lines that divide our world,” said Thinley. “They will need to find new ways to create a more harmonic world.”

To counter the growing weapons industry, for example, he suggested leaders need to advocate for the “departure from the old logic of security” and move to a security system that consists of regional centers that promote peace. “It is possible for us,” he said, “to realize that it is not security but insecurity we create by the spread of arms and the expansion of armies.”

Bhutan held its first democratic national elections in 2008, after the king gave up absolute power voluntarily and turned the throne over to his son to preside over a constitutional monarchy.

In welcoming Thinley, University President Lee C. Bollinger said no other guest is as well-equipped to address the subject of happiness, calling Bhutan “a unique civil society.”

“We will all be watching closely how the events unfold in Bhutan,” said Bollinger. “It’s a set of circumstances that has no parallel elsewhere in the world today.”

At a reception following the talk, Thinley said the country’s transition to a democracy has gone smoothly. “The only reason for that is because democracy in Bhutan did not come by way of struggle and conflict between those who had power and those people who wanted empowerment,” he said. “It came by way of a king who felt that the power belonged to the people.”

According to a happiness poll conducted in 2005, only 3 percent of the population identified themselves as unhappy, with 52 percent saying they were happy and the rest, very happy. The country plans to conduct its second happiness survey next year. Still, even a happy new democracy faces challenges.

“The biggest challenge my country is faced with is how do you create democrats among a people who never wanted democracy in the first place,” he said. “We’re faced with how to develop a democratic culture among the people so that the power they have can be exercised responsibly and effectively, so that even the most popular leaders—though they may have come through the electoral process—do not manifest tendencies and succeed in becoming authoritarian.

Source: Melanie A. Farmer (The Record, Columbia University)

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