Gross National Happiness: A New Development Paradigm
“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National product”.
With this famous declaration made in the 1970s, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan challenged conventional, narrow and materialistic notions of human progress, and highlighted the inadequacy of GDP to measure equitable and meaningful development. He realized and declared that the existing development paradigm – GDP – did not consider the ultimate goal of every human being: happiness.
Old Wisdom for a Modern Age!
Since that time this pioneering vision of GNH has guided Bhutan’s development and policy formation. Unique among the community of nations, it is a balanced ‘middle path’ in which equitable socio-economic development is integrated with environmental conservation, cultural promotion and good governance.
The Folly of the GDP Obsession!
The folly of an obsession with GDP, as a measure of economic activity which does not distinguish between those activities that increase a nation’s wealth and those that deplete its natural resources or result in poor health or widening social inequalities is so clearly evident. If the forests of Bhutan were logged for profit, GDP would increase; if Bhutanese citizens picked up modern living habits adversely affecting their health, investments in health care systems would be made and GDP would increase. All of these actions could negatively affect the lives of the Bhutanese people yet paradoxically would contribute to an increase in GDP.
The intuitive guiding principle of Gross National Happiness led to a practical conceptualization of the concept. The foundation is made of four pillars:
1. Environmental conservation as an antidote to the ecological divide
Environmental conservation is considered a key contribution to GNH because in addition to providing critical services such as water and energy, the environment is believed to contribute to aesthetic and other stimuli that can be directly healing to people. Bhutan is absorbing three times more CO2 than it produces and has pledged to remain a carbon sink and to become 100% organic by 2020.
2. Fair and sustainable socio-economic development as an antidote to the social divide
GNH economics is a spiritual approach to economics. It examines the functioning of the human mind and aspires to transform ignorance, greed and violence that direct most of the current economic activity. It aims to clarify what is harmful and beneficial in the range of human activities involving production and consumption, and tries to support people in making ethical choices. It strives towards a middle way balancing economic development and human values.
It holds that truly rational decisions can only be made when we understand the nature and the functioning of the mind. When we understand what constitutes desire and craving as a cause of suffering, we realize that all the wealth in the world cannot satisfy it. We become aware of the importance of contentment and of leading a simple but dignified life.
GNH economics challenges the vision of homo economicus that underlies current economic models: from a GNH perspective, attributes such as altruism and compassion are innate qualities of the mind. Economic development is important but it must be fair in terms of distribution and sustainable in order not to deprive future generations of their right to a good life.
3. Preservation and promotion of culture as an antidote to the spiritual-cultural divide
Culture, includes science, arts, and spirituality. All three elements are important and must be equally promoted and developed for a society to thrive. If culture is reduced to its economic dimension and when it is determined by financial indicators only, a society gradually loses its identity and values and individuals are reduced to economic actors: producers and consumers. Bhutan is a good example of a country that has been able to preserve and to further develop its unique Buddhist heritage and values.
4. Good governance as an antidote to the leadership divide
Good governance is considered a pillar for happiness because it determines the conditions in which people thrive. While policies and programmes that are developed in Bhutan are generally in line with the values of GNH, there are also a number of tools and processes employed to ensure the values are indeed embedded in social policy. Bhutan is also a unique example of a peaceful transition from absolute monarchy to democracy initiated by the King himself.
The GNH framework seeks to find a balance between the outer and the inner conditions leading to happiness and wellbeing. Seeing happiness as a skill is a relatively new and unusual idea in current western culture, but most traditional wisdom traditions, from ancient Greek Philosophy to Asian spirituality have shared this vision and developed methods to cultivate the inner qualities leading to happiness. However, there is now a strong convergence between traditional contemplative wisdom and the latest scientific findings – especially in the field of neuroscience – that allows a better understanding of the way we can train the mind to enhance inner qualities such as mindfulness, compassion and altruism, and how these abilities have a strong correlation with happiness and wellbeing. In the field of education, there is a growing awareness of the need to complement intellectual and academic skills with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and with the training of attention: Mindfulness practices.