Ecology (3): Gross National Happiness

In this month's National Geographic in the report about Bhutan 1), Brook Larmer describes King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's concept of "Gross National Happiness" (GNH), based on four principles: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance 2)  (promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance per Wikipedia on 03-21-2008. 3)

Bhutan is described as a country roughly the size of Switzerland 4) with about 700,000 inhabitants (Bhutanese Census of 2005 5)); geographically isolated and difficult as well as expensive to access; one of the least developed countries on Earth, over 60% of the population working in agriculture 6), and over 70% of the country covered by forests 7)

Gross National Happiness appears to be an experiment that seems to run counter the grand experiment of civilization conducted almost everywhere else as described by Ronald Wright in his book "A Short History of Progress" 8) (see earlier post Ecology (2)).  Questions that come to mind immediately are how realistic such approach is; how long-term success of Bhutan's experiment could be achieved; and how this model could be applied elsewhere.

A brief search on the internet provides indication that this is a quite serious initiative: 

  • In Bhutan, the idea of GNH is not just idle talk but is a Matter of State and of research, by appearance as involved (comparatively) as the US Census:  The Center for Bhutan Studies does conduct a GNH survey 9).
  • There is a GNH movement 10), which organizes GNH conferences.
  • It seems not without challenges, as two reports in Bhutan's official newspaper Kuensel indicate:
    • On GNH is a brief report about the third GNH conference in Bangkok, emphasizing "We want, and we need, to make GNH a success in Bhutan." 11)
    • GNH needs to come home comments on the need to find practical implementations beyond the various conferences that have been held: "As the path to happiness, GNH is both a means and an end. It is a long journey. We are at the beginning and there is no end."  12)
  • Earlier I already pointed to the Wikipedia entry for Gross National Happiness. 

The concept of making Happiness a Matter of State is not entirely alien to us; it is one of the unalienable rights listed in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: "[...] among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". 13)  The Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness in 2005 was reason for the New York Times to report in the Science section about research on happiness "A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom"  "[...] beyond a certain threshold of wealth people appear to redefine happiness, studies suggest, focusing on their relative position in society instead of their material status.  [... The] researchers, Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, gave the subjects a choice of earning $50,000 a year in a world where the average salary was $25,000 or $100,000 a year where the average was $200,000.  About 50 percent of the participants, the researchers found, chose the first option, preferring to be half as prosperous but richer than their neighbors."  14)

Obviously, surrounded by reports about how rich wealthy people are, it becomes very difficult to name one's happiness number.  However, just published research about happiness hints at the possibility that it may not be about the amount of money one has but perhaps all about giving (some) money away, sharing one's wealth.  15)  A few of the wealthiest individuals in this country may have sensed that even before this research was published: Bill and Melinda Gates started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is performing tremendous work that matters, and Warren Buffet supports this good work with his donations.  While the donors hopefully experience the effects that the research describes, the work they finance hopefully helps to move many people closer to a place in their lives where they can stop worrying and perhaps start experiencing some happiness. 

I will attempt to describe why this matters in future posts. 

1) Brook Larmer "Bhutan's Enlightened Experiment"; in National Geographic Vol 213, No. 3, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C. March 2008, pg 124ff.
2) ibid. pg 130.
3) Wikipedia entry for Gross National Happiness as of March 21st 2008.
4) Larmer 2008, pg 130.
5) Bhutanese government website as of March 21st 2008.
6) CIA Factbook as of March 21st 2008.
7) Larmer 2008, pg 130.
8) Wright, Ronald: A Short History of Progress; Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2005.
9) Center for Bhutan Studies as of March 21st 2008.
10) as of March 21st 2008.
11) KUENSEL ONLINE as of March 21st 2008.
12) KUENSEL ONLINE as of March 21st 2008. 
13) Wikipedia entry for "United States Declaration of Independence" as of March 21st 2008.
14) New York Times online archive Science section as of March 21st 2008.
15) Associated Press report as of March 21st 2008.
also ScienceNOW as of March 22nd 2008.