03 October 2011

Bhutan and its Quest for Gross Domestic Happiness

Bhutan sounds like quite a nice little country. Nestled away in Central Asia, just east of Nepal, it is a place steeped in a kind of mystical quality; some sort of cultural permanence whereby it seems to us to be separate from the world in its society, its culture, and in its way of functioning. Indeed it has often been referred to as The Last Shangri-la, and is a magnet for people interested in experiencing it’s heavily Buddhist influenced culture.
They also drive on the left side of the road.
Looking in to travelling there you might notice the exorbitant costs levied by its government ($200USD a day in order to stay there!), and think it a negative signal of the government within; perhaps they are prone to extortion, or trying to hold back the world from its people, a la the communist strongholds of last century.
However looking into it further, you will find this is far from the truth.
The disincentives for tourists to visit the country are put in place for the happiness of its people, not simply for their isolation. An influx of tourists would potentially damage not only the environment of the diminutive country, but also its cultural integrity (or at least so says the government). Granted though this might sound like any authoritarian governments excuse, other evidence on the matter points to a more cordial answer, as the government’s commitment to happiness is more than a mere catchphrase.
The Bhutanese government’s dedication to the pursuit of happiness for its population is evident when you look at their recent actions.
Not content with simply making the pursuit of happiness a right as it is in the United States; something to be taken up by the individual, and protected by the government. The Bhutanese government actively sets about increasing the happiness of its people, and making their happiness an essential part of governing.
Indeed they were recently the initiating force in getting the pursuit for happiness recognised as an international human right, and are the only country on earth which actively tries to measure the happiness of its population in any meaningful sense (though how possible this is, is up for debate).

Now I know what you may be thinking; don’t all governments seek to increase the happiness of their populous?
And in a sense you are right, but what sets Bhutan apart from the rest is how willing they are to take a right which may or may not be exercised by it citizens, and turn it into a right which is to be not only facilitated by the government, but also encouraged.
You see governments like ours work for the happiness of its citizens in a roundabout, or indirect way. We ensure that business owners can run their businesses in a profitable way, and be protected from (apparent) threats from abroad. We keep workers safe from injustice in the workplace be ensuring employers adhere to regulations. We provide people with services in any number of ways to ensure that they can maintain healthy, safe and prosperous lives. But at the heart of these initiatives there is rarely a desire for increasing the overall happiness as an overt goal.
In a sense Bhutan’s government has put in place measures to protect its citizen’s happiness in much the same way that other countries seek to protect their environment.
Bhutan’s government has a checkpoint through which any budding policies must pass, where its impact on the gross domestic happiness is analysed, and should it be found to threaten this, the panel has the authority to strike it down, and send it back for adjustment. This is done in the form of Gross National Happiness impact statement, much like the Environmental Impact Statements that accompany major development works in our country.
The countries current Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley is a driving force in this push for happiness being a goal of the government. If you are sceptical of his conviction, just take a look at him leading a National Happiness Commission procession in the photo below (hint: he is the one sporting the massive grin).
He recently spoke at the opening of a conference hosted in the Himalayan kingdom specifically convened to discuss "Economic Development and Happiness". Indeed the Prime Minister organised the global conference which was co-hosted by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; and indication that this conference wasn’t just for show.

All this being said of course, there are downsides to this kind of governing. For instance, other countries don’t necessarily have statements about how to pursue the gross national happiness of their populations because happiness is such a subjective term. What makes me happy might, if forced upon you, make you unhappy. Indeed the bigger the country, the harder it is to for such a cohesive statement of national preference. In the small kingdom of Bhutan it is a bit easier, specifically when the government’s determination of happiness factors relies heavily on the shared culture of the Buddhist constituents.
However that in itself causes another, more sinister problem.
Take for instance the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the country expelled nearly one fifth of its population in the name of preserving its Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist culture and identity; something which it sees as intrinsic to its happiness. One wonders here if the overall happiness of the country being increased at the expense of a minority is worth it. In fact, one shouldn’t have to wonder; it should be perfectly clear.

In another instance, Bhutan was one of the last countries to introduce television to its constituents, with the ban on television and the Internet only being lifted in 1999. This was again in part due to the worries that the influence of these factors on the population could put Bhutan’s traditional cultural aspects at risk.
Though in this case the weighing up of the potential benefits for the overall happiness of the population, versus the possible unhappiness caused by a cultures adaptation to new influences, resulted in a win for the introduction of these influences. This placed of the nation’s growth as a happier independent country above that of the mere stagnant enforcement of previous cultural norms, which always seems a good sign to me that the government is still working for the people, not simply ruling over them.

Last year Bhutan became the only country to ban the sale of tobacco within its borders. Citizens are welcome to buy it in neighbouring India, and can smoke in public; however they must carry their receipts with them, or else risk running afoul with the law. This move was seen as being overall beneficial for the gross Domestic Happiness of Bhutan, even though it may be at the expense of the overall Gross Domestic Product of the Bhutanese. Whether or not you agree with the rationale behind banning tobacco sales, it is still interesting to see a government which bases its arguments partly around impacts on happiness, and not just on the wallet.

But it is all well and good to speak of these things in theory. The true test of Bhutan’s quest for Gross National Happiness maximisation is written in the fuzzy hand of statistics.
A study by Adrian G. White of the University of Leicester titled "A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?" sought to rank the different nations of the world using the common metric of Subjective Well-Being. Out of the 178 countries analysed, Bhutan took the number eight spot on the list, and was the highest of all Asian countries. This is no small feat considering out of the top twenty countries, it was the only one with a significantly low Gross Domestic Product (with a GDP per capita of only $1,978).

So while I am not putting this form of governing forward as a panacea for all our trouble, I still think it is an interesting thing to see in practice.

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