Canadians define Bhutan happiness

In: Uncategorized

30 Apr 2010

One of the most peculiar aspects of the contemporary happiness debate is the obsession with Bhutan. Those who advocate happiness as a key social goal often hold up the Himalayan kingdom’s advocacy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a good model to follow.

Relatively few details of what GNH means are available so I was particularly interested in reading this outline in the Walrus, a Canadian magazine. Happiness was first decreed as an official national goal by the king, then an absolute monarch, back in 1987. It is hard to resist the conclusion that western happiness gurus such as Richard Layard would like to be in a position to issue a similar diktat.

However, two years ago the king abdicated in favour of his son and allowed the creation of a constitutional monarchy. Jigmi Y Thinley, the first elected prime minister, then approached GPI Atlantic, a think tank based in Nova Scotia, to devise a set of indicators to act as an official measure of happiness:

“GNH rests on four pillars of value: environmental conservation; cultural preservation and promotion; sustainable and equitable development; and good governance, including the development of active and responsible citizenship. These pillars are divided into seventy-two quantifiable variables, designed to provide hard data about significant issues. One variable reflects Bhutan’s commitment to maintain at least 60 percent forest cover — forever. (In fact, 72 percent of Bhutan is forested now, and the country absorbs three times as much carbon as it produces.) Another focuses on the central government’s performance in fighting corruption. Indices exist for reciprocity, emotional balance, artisanal skill, and health knowledge. A couple of items measure the transmission of values to the young.”

To someone living in Britain this is reminiscent of  New Labour’s fondness for intrusive indicators and targets. I hate to think what kind of initiatives exist in Bhutan to promote “emotional balance” or “health knowledge”.