The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has introduced a new measurement of national prosperity, focussing on people’s well-being rather than economic productivity. In recent years, there has been growing interest in this concept, known as “gross national happiness” (GNH). In 2011, the General Assembly adopted a resolution, known as the ‘happiness resolution,’ which noted, inter alia, that the gross domestic product (GDP) indicator “does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.”
On Monday, more than 600 participants from governments, academia, civil society and religious bodies gathered at UN Headquarters to attend a high-level conference, hosted by Bhutan, on this new economic paradigm. The outcome of the conference will also inform negotiations related to Rio+20, the global conference on sustainable development being held in June.
The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Y. Thinley, spoke with the UN News Centre ahead of the meeting.
What is “gross national happiness”?
Thinley: Gross national happiness is the philosophy or development paradigm that has guided Bhutan’s development in a way that has been holistic and based on the belief that the aspiration, the ultimate goal of every human individual, is happiness, so then it must be the responsibility of the state, or the government, to create those conditions that will enable citizens to pursue this value, this goal.
Do you consider happiness an inalienable human right?
Thinley: Yes, it is a fundamental need of the human individual and therefore, I think, certainly, an inalienable human right that must constitute the most important function and responsibility of any government and any leader.
You have previously described the existing gross domestic product-based (GDP) economic system as flawed. Why?
Thinley: It is flawed and it has many deficiencies. It is flawed in that it promotes limitless growth in a world that is finite. It has deficiencies in the sense that it does not measure or account for so many things that are important to the well-being of a human individual – which ultimately is the purpose of development. These are, for instance, the way in which wealth is distributed; or, in the process of achieving material and economic growth, whether the costs that are caused on account of ecological, cultural and social problems might lead to a situation where the economic gains might be far less than the costs; in fact, for instance, depletion of resources, extraction of resources, in wasteful ways, are – according to GDP-based economic paradigms – economic growth and development.
A GDP-based approach to economic development has been a mainstay in intellectual and academic thought for decades. How can a GNH-based approach compete against that?
Thinley: Actually, GDP is not so much an indicator for development as a matrix for accounting; and, the person who in fact established the Gross Domestic Product indicator, he himself, had declared that it is not a measure of human well-being. It is simply a measure of the goods and services exchanged in a market-place at a given time in a given country. So, what the GNH paradigm in fact does is consign GDP to its rightful place and that is simply measuring the goods and services produced, and it becomes therefore only a small part a much larger matrix that measures, for instance, ecological wellbeing, ecological vitality, integrity, cultural diversity, emotional/psychological well-being, the distribution of economic benefits, the quality of governance. In fact, GNH, as has been developed, as the indicator now, comprises of nine indicators, nine domains, each of which can be measured through 72 variables.
Is it an obligation or governments, of politics in general, to provide conditions of happiness?
Thinley: I think its is the responsibility of governments, upon having been elected and made responsible for improving the well-being of the people, to create conditions to enable citizens to achieve what they want most in life and that is happiness.
That would seem a very logical expectation. How is it that the world has not come around to this way of thinking?
Thinley: Well, the reason why the world hasn’t come around to that so far, or until recent times, has mainly been because happiness has been dismissed as a naïve idea, a utopian idea that cannot be measured. Since we live in a world where anything that is not amenable to measurement is not of importance, GNH, or rather happiness, was not given importance.
But now, increasingly, there has been so much research in terms of developing ways, matrixes and systems which can actually assess the way in which happiness can be measured through various factors that contribute to the happiness quotient of an individual. There are those now who increasingly accept happiness as an objective for development.
What is the benefit for governments in promoting happiness and well-being?
Thinley: It is not so much what the government gains, if the government were to be seen as an instrument that must serve the purpose of the electorate, then the government – that instrument – in creating those conditions for the pursuit of happiness is fulfilling its mandate, its function, its purpose.
Environmental protection and cultural heritage are some of the elements in measuring gross national happiness. But these ‘intangibles’ are difficult to measure and, presumably, could they be manipulated by governments?
Thinley: Statistics of any kind are manipulatable, that is true, but a government or a system that is genuinely interested in or committed to promoting happiness, I would imagine would be one that will create systems to ensure that the measures of the developments and the changes that take place and the variables that influence happiness are accurate, that they are objective, and that there are in place checks and balances to ensure their accuracy. But above all, I would imagine a government truly committed to promoting happiness would be one that is, in the first place, sincere in its purpose.
What do you say to critics who say that happiness is a subjective concept that is impossible to measure?
Thinley: We are going to be discussing on 2 April how in fact happiness is measurable, how happiness comprises various elements of aspects, each of which can be measured either subjectively or objectively – but they can be measured. And all kinds of research has been conducted, including psychological and neurosciences, which can prove the changes in the functioning of the brain for instance depending on what kind of emotion or psychological experiences a person is going through and happiness, it seems, is very visible on the screen.
What do you say to critics who say that what may work in a small Himalayan country doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world?
Thinley: It must and it will. What is good for Bhutan is good for the rest of the world because it is something, as I said, that is related to the very basic aspiration of the human individual. And human beings everywhere across the world are the same when it comes to their basic instincts, when it comes to their basic aspirations. It is simply the framework, the cultural milieu and the norms within which they function. I’m convinced that the way it is finding application increasingly across the world, including in Japan too now, I’m convinced that if not gross national happiness in the form that it exists today, in the form that it is implemented and pursued in Bhutan, perhaps in a more refined way and a variation at least, of it will certainly come to prevail – must come to prevail – in the world, because it is the only way in which we can address the question of human survival and human well-being to be measured, as I said, in terms of happiness.
60 years ago the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marked a seismic shift in the thinking about government-citizen relationships. Is GNH a natural progression in human thinking or has it been at the core of all development concepts and never really been fleshed out?
Thinley: I think it would be true to say that at the sub-conscious level, both as individual and as states or governments, happiness has always been the ultimate purpose – in a subconscious way – but never really brought to the fore because it was not amenable to measurement, and so the unfortunate outcome has been the belief that economic growth, material prosperity and the accumulation of wealth will lead to happiness. And the sad outcome has been the mistaking of the means for the end itself.
But now I think that reality has struck human society, and it is for that reason that so many economists, academics, politicians, indeed even corporate leaders, are now looking at the softer aspects of development, and in particular, happiness.
What reaction do you have to GNH in your meetings with world leaders?
Thinley: So far, all the leaders with which I have discussed this subject tell me how excited they are and how this is very much needed. They all agree that business as usual cannot go on if mankind is to survive.
How can the GNH concept resonate with power bases in a society, which see economic or military might as the ultimate objective?
Thinley: There have been so many circumstances, so many compelling circumstances, that are now convincing not only leaders and politicians, but the population at large throughout the world, that unless we change the basis of our development, the purpose of our development, life itself may no longer be sustainable.
And if you’re talking about economic might and political or military might, it is in the end all about survival. It is in the end all about enhancing security for individuals and for the nation, and that has become questionable.
The survival of the human being itself is now a big question, as has been manifest in the rising frequency and the magnitude of natural and man-made calamities, all pointing to the fact that life must change, that life as we live must change, that the basis on which we conduct our development has to change – and in so doing, I think people are beginning to see, as you mentioned, the flaws and deficiencies of pursuing a GDP-based economic development.
Given everything else on the international community’s agenda – ranging from the Middle East to Africa – how difficult has it been to get Member States to focus on GNH?
Thinley: I must honestly tell you that why Bhutan is here today is to host a high-level meeting on the development of a sustainability-based economic paradigm aimed at promoting human well-being and happiness has got very little to do with Bhutan’s efforts to convince the world on the virtues of GNH. Rather, it is the outside interest that has compelled Bhutan, that has persuaded Bhutan and, indeed, inspired Bhutan to firstly dare to propose a resolution on happiness here in the United Nations. And what the world saw was an international community very eager to adopt such a resolution – the resolution was co-sponsored by 68 countries and passed without a vote unanimously.
So that in itself is an indication of the mood of the international community; so there is this desire, this interest, in alternative development paradigm, and it is this that has been the cause for Bhutan being invited at the level of academics, politicians and so on to come and speak on this subject throughout the world.
Today you have, for instance, David Cameron in the UK, deeply committed to measuring development and measuring progress in ways that actually mean improvement in human well-being. You have President [Nikolas] Sarkozy in France that commissioned [Nobel Prize-winning economists] Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to look at the deficiencies of the ways in which we measure development and what kind of changes we might bring in the development paradigm to promote a more meaningful way of life.
You have Brazil – which, incidentally, is sending a huge number of people to participate in this conference – is a country where the GNH model is being applied at the city level, at the municipal level, in corporations, and at the community levels. It’s spreading.
What is the significance of Monday’s meeting at UN Headquarters?
Thinley: The clarion call was sounded last year in July, through the resolution. It is now the intention of the meeting on 2 April to bring together people from around the world – and indeed, it is a global meeting and we are amazed with the response we have received from all sections of society from all across the world – to come together and to deliberate on how in fact we should create a model, a basis for the implementation of this resolution. And as we see things developing, we are looking at the launching of the initiative for the creation of a sustainability-based paradigm comprising of, basically, four dimensions. These are: one, well-being and happiness; two, ecological sustainability; three, fair distribution; and four, efficient use of the increasingly scarce resources.
So despite all the security issues and other items on the international agenda, there is firm interest… ?
Thinley: No, I think it is because of the security issues! And security has many dimensions. It is not only in a war situation that you can describe as a security situation. As is said, the security issues as it concerns human society has to be seen in a large perspective; and human society, human life, together with all other forms of life, is threatened because of the mistaken way in which we are pursuing development, thinking that it will lead to our well-being and happiness, while in fact, development as we pursue it is unsustainable and it is destroying our environment.
How do you feel knowing that Bhutan is inextricably linked in the general public’s mind with the concept of happiness?
Thinley: Bhutan has never really sought fame or popularity. And in fact, GNH is something that we did not seek to promote, but the knowledge that people do know about GNH and associate this idea with Bhutan gives me a sense of hope in the future of mankind. It means that people are aware that there is such a thing as an alternative way living life, an alternative way to living life in such a way that life as we live it can be meaningful and can become sustainable.
What outcome are you hoping for from Monday’s meeting for you to be satisfied?
Thinley: One, we should have been able to agree by then on a set of recommendations that may be implemented voluntarily by various governments that will, slowly or rapidly, depending on the pace that they choose towards, as I said, a sustainability-based economic paradigm. Two, we should have agreed on a taskforce that will build on the recommendations, on the thoughts, that have been generated at this meeting; and these comprise on the four dimensions that I mentioned, who will build on it and then, by the end of this year, will come up with a proposal for the operationalization, for the regulation if you will and the institutional arrangements that will lead to the pursuit of those aspects of sustainability-based development paradigm; and these, hopefully, should be available for review by experts around the world. And finally, I should be able to be convinced that we will be able to present to the General Assembly a set of recommendations for its consideration in ways that will provide a higher plane for mankind to embark upon at the end of 2015, by which time the basic survival goals, as pronounced in the form of the eight Millennium Development Goals will have come to an end.
Where do you hope to see GNH in ten years’ time?
Thinley: This is 2012. I expect, I hope, I dream of the possibility of the GNH model, or a variation of it, and maybe it might assume a different name also – this whole proposal is now before the international community and what name it gives it, how it designates it, and how much change it undergoes, is not up to Bhutan, it is now within the realm of the international community.
I hope that by 2015 the international community will have adopted a sustainability-based economic paradigm, committed to promoting true human well-being and happiness, and ensuring at the same time, the survival of all species with which we share this planet.
Courtesy : UN News Center