Zen and the art of happiness

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan pursues happiness as a political goal. Ode pays a visit to the place that may turn everything we know about economic development on its head.


Stephan Herrera | December 2005 issue

Every developing country works hard to cultivate an image, a distinct brand awareness, to attract tourists and trading partners. Few have been as successful as Bhutan. Actually, this tiny Himalayan country has somehow managed to create an ethos that defines the country’s state of mind.

Imagine a peaceful kingdom with some of the world’s tallest mountains and most unspoiled forests, which is populated with Buddhists who preach kindness and goodwill toward humankind and nature. Imagine a poor country that has chosen to build its own unique path to modernization, one that does not rely upon conventional tourism and development.

Some of the world’s rarest animals make Bhutan their home, including the snow leopard, Bengal tiger, takin and golden langur. Bhutan is home to 616 species of birds. In the spring, summer and fall, the lowlands are awash with colour: bright red, pink and white and blue poppies are everywhere. Unlike Bhutan’s neighbours in Nepal, Bangladesh, India or China, heavy industry has not scarred the landscape or fouled the air and water. It’s not that there is no industry, it’s just that the industries and production that exist are, for the most part, compatible with the environment and local communities.

Unlike most other developing nations, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk did not mortgage his country’s political and economic fate over to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United States, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for hard currency and soft promises of help. Instead, Bhutan stitched together a small coalition of bilateral partners like India, Thailand, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden and Denmark, who all agreed to step in as investors and donors of talent, bridges, telecom equipment, road-building plans and hydro-power technology.

Today the vast majority of Bhutan’s hard currency comes from ecotourism and hydro power-generated electricity. Its economy is one of the fastest growing in Asia. And the political structure is peacefully making the transition from monarchy to a kind of Asian-style democracy—at the king’s behest.

King Wangchuk created a novel development plan three decades ago, early on mandating that his country’s success be judged in part by the degree to which it makes the Bhutanese citizenry happy. Yes, happy. In Bhutan, happiness is a measuring stick by which all aspects of modernization are judged. The King believes that gross national happiness (GNH) is more important than the widely used measure of economic well-being, gross national product (GNP).

I went to Bhutan to see how this grand idea plays out in reality. When I asked middle-school students in the poorer rural areas, where one might think money and jobs would be the only things that are important, I got an earful. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise to me that in a land where the king is widely revered, there would be great enthusiasm for the GNH philosophy. Then again, I did not hear preprogrammed dogma about GNH. Moreover, in most cases the teachers left their classrooms when I arrived so the students were free to speak their minds, at least as much as one can expect from students speaking to a total stranger.

One 16-year-old boy in Bumthang, who like many Bhutanese goes by the name Karma, said he did not know of a single teenager in the countryside who did not feel encouraged by his government’s interest in developing the nation with the balanced sensibility fundamental to GNH. Throughout Bhutan, but especially in small towns like Bumthang, which are surrounded by striking snow-capped peaks, gentle waterfalls and verdant valleys filled with the sound of hawks and the occasional monkey chatter, an outsider can quickly forget that like most of the world, the rural interior is seriously impoverished.

Stuart Campbell, the American manager of the Uma Paro spa hotel in Paro, which opened a year ago, told me that entrepreneurs in Bhutan, most of whom are Bhutanese, regard GNH with guarded optimism if for no other reason than the perception in the business community that GNH creates a sense of stability. “The government certainly doesn’t require [businesses] to buy into GNH,” Campbell told me one night over dinner. “But I can guarantee you that every business owner in Bhutan that is smart will continue to embrace and support it because so far, at least, it’s been good for business.”

If the high ideal of Gross National Happiness succeeds over the long run, it will be in large part because the youth, entrepreneurs, and outside investors believe that it is good for them.

It doesn’t seem to matter that neither the king, nor anybody else throughout history for that matter, has figured out how to quantify happiness. To the contrary, it is perhaps because happiness cannot be measured that the King created the concept and goals of GNH in the first place. The thinking in Bhutan is that unless change results not just in a higher standard of living, but happiness, what’s the point of changing? Most governments, at least in theory, would like to think their policies are designed to maximize the happiness of the masses. Few really are. The king and government of Bhutan aim to be the exception to the rule. And they might just succeed.
Here are three reasons why:

* First, the four “pillars” of GNH—environmental conservation, socio-economic development, culture and good governance—have just been enshrined in the country’s first constitution as the guiding principles of the government’s contract with its people.
* Second, the Bhutanese do not merely have a right to happiness, they have a right to judge their government on the degree to which development and modernization plans are in keeping with GNH. Just as with their king, the Bhutanese may submit a grievance to the government if they feel their happiness is being neglected.
* Thirdly, Bhutanese across a broad spectrum of class and standing have embraced GNH as a good thing. All of the Bhutanese I met along my travels—and I met schoolteachers, students from K-12, farmers, bankers, country doctors, civil servants, Internet entrepreneurs, even cynical intellectuals and journalists—have bought into the idea that GNH is not a gimmick, but a plan for enlightened and sustainable development. They see GNH as a defining feature of their culture and a logical extension of their Buddhist tradition.

It is entirely possible that the good people of Bhutan are being hoodwinked into thinking their government really is weighing future development and modernization plans against the impact these plans will have upon their happiness. The Bhutanese and the rest of the world—which is beginning to pay attention to Bhutan’s happiness experiment—will know for certain soon enough. In a matter of months, the sole responsibility for governing Bhutan will officially pass from the partnership that has existed between the king and the government for the past six years to the government, entirely. The fate of GNH is now linked to the fate of the Bhutanese public, both of which are now under the control of an elected government.

The government has its work cut out for it. As one government official who oversees Bhutan’s bilateral relations told me, “Perhaps the greatest challenge is making sure that our neighbours in the region and our bilateral partners around the world respect our desire to develop our nation and our economy using the principles of GNH. We are a small developing country that depends very much upon its neighbours (and donors). It would be very easy to let others tell us how we should be modernizing.”

Today, no government official’s speech is complete without some mention of it. A national conference on the theory and pursuit of GNH has been spun out of a series of academic lectures on the topic. Last year’s first annual GNH conference was so popular, in fact, that the second installment, held this past June in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in an effort to make it more accessible to the global observers who have become intrigued by GNH, attracted some 400 academics and policy-makers from 35 countries. There is talk of inserting a panel discussion on GNH into the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Reporters who cover the developing nations of Asia on a regular basis say Bhutan is one of the bright spots on their beat.

If Bhutan can prove that a healthy economy, democracy, social equality, sustainable development, environmental protection and energy independence are all within reach of even the poorest nations, this tiny Buddhist country will turn 100 years of economic and political theory on its head and possibly even inspire other nations to take a chance on this Bhutanese style of Zen economic development.

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics who feel GNH and even Bhutan are not model operations. The Economist magazine essentially pronounced GNH a cheap parlour trick earlier this year. The Kathmandu Post, an English daily, had this to say about GNH: “The pseudo-reforms are an effort to create the appearance of political pluralism without autonomous social and economic power in Bhutan. Today, the supporters of the regime record success and talk about Gross National Happiness but they will not mention human-rights violations, the muzzled press, centralized government dominated by the elite, communal harmony and condition of exiles whose return is barred.”

Still, if Bhutan’s king and his ruling elite are up to no good, they certainly have hoodwinked a lot of very smart, well-traveled souls. George Martin, a retired infectious-disease specialist who spent nearly 30 years at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has seen his share of developing countries around the world. Martin says the issue is not whether Bhutan has problems. It does, not least in its health-care system. Rather, the point is that Bhutan has far fewer than any other developing nation he’s visited, save perhaps for Costa Rica. “Bhutan is a success story that has only just begun,” he says.

To be sure, Bhutan is still very much a developing country. Close to 90 percent of the population still relies upon the family farm for food and income. More than one-third of Bhutan’s budget is plugged with development aid. The country has $598 million U.S. in debt. Nearly two-thirds of Bhutan is still without electricity and one-quarter of the citizens live without sanitary drinking water.

The leading causes of death and disease haven’t changed all that much over the past 20 years. Most households use poorly ventilated wood-burning stoves in their kitchens. As a result, many Bhutanese still experience chronic and acute respiratory illness. They continue to suffer from malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, worms and infections. And health officials have had their hands full with a host of new diseases of modernity that have emerged in recent years, like hypertension, diabetes, and depression.

One gets the feeling that even if it is unintentional, GNH is masking greater problems in Bhutan. Nobody in the government will admit, for example, that although the economy is growing rapidly and the standard of living has improved markedly, the country still has a long way to go before it can lay any claim to a complete reversal from misfortune to fortune. But the Bhutanese I spoke with were not naive enough to think nothing could go wrong from here onward. Prime Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba told me he feels the risk of a backlash against GNH is low and will remain that way as long as the government itself does not forget the main objective of GNH: to move forward as a nation with eyes wide open. “We must modernize to survive,” he said. “But we must do it wisely and with a dose of humility.”

There are many conundrums. Bhutan’s ecotourism industry, for example, limits what villagers and farmers can do to electrify their homes. In Gangte, a vast and beautiful savannah in central Bhutan, power lines aren’t allowed out of fear they would disrupt the migratory patterns of the legendary black-necked crane. Local villagers naturally feel put upon because unlike tour operators, they do not profit from tourists. But there is talk of bringing electricity to such regions through alternative power sources like solar power, fuel cells and biomass. There is also talk of bringing electricity to the countryside through buried cables once the hydro-power infrastructure has expanded more broadly across the country.

In his book Happiness (Penguin, 2005), the British economist Richard Layard reminds us that societies need goals aimed at improving lives even if sometimes their purposes and payoffs are a matter of debate. “Society cannot flourish without some sense of shared purpose,” he writes.

Bhutan is gaining a sense of shared purpose, and that purpose is to prove to itself and the rest of the world that happiness can be merged with economic development. This has not necessarily made Bhutan a richer nation—although it probably has—but it has certainly captured the world’s imagination. As King Wangchuk stated at last year’s GNH conference, “I believe that while Gross National Happiness is inherently Bhutanese, its ideas may have a positive relevance to any nation, peoples or communities. … I also believe that there must be some convergence among nations on the idea of what the end objective of development and progress should be. There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent—if we do not accept that in the end we are people, all alike, sharing the earth among ourselves.”

Bhutan is certainly in the best position today to put this philosophy to the test. Let us hope that GNH proves the cynics wrong or at least remains part of the solution, rather than becoming part of the problem in Bhutan. The real test lies ahead. The world is watching. If GNH proves over time to be little more than empty words, it will be our loss too.

Stephan Herrera is an American journalist, specialized in politics, economy and technology. He is Nature’s news editor and writes for The Economist. He wrote this article at the request of Ode.

Solution News Source

Zen and the art of happiness

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan pursues happiness as a political goal. Ode pays a visit to the place that may turn everything we know about economic development on its head.


Stephan Herrera | December 2005 issue

Every developing country works hard to cultivate an image, a distinct brand awareness, to attract tourists and trading partners. Few have been as successful as Bhutan. Actually, this tiny Himalayan country has somehow managed to create an ethos that defines the country’s state of mind.

Imagine a peaceful kingdom with some of the world’s tallest mountains and most unspoiled forests, which is populated with Buddhists who preach kindness and goodwill toward humankind and nature. Imagine a poor country that has chosen to build its own unique path to modernization, one that does not rely upon conventional tourism and development.

Some of the world’s rarest animals make Bhutan their home, including the snow leopard, Bengal tiger, takin and golden langur. Bhutan is home to 616 species of birds. In the spring, summer and fall, the lowlands are awash with colour: bright red, pink and white and blue poppies are everywhere. Unlike Bhutan’s neighbours in Nepal, Bangladesh, India or China, heavy industry has not scarred the landscape or fouled the air and water. It’s not that there is no industry, it’s just that the industries and production that exist are, for the most part, compatible with the environment and local communities.

Unlike most other developing nations, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk did not mortgage his country’s political and economic fate over to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United States, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for hard currency and soft promises of help. Instead, Bhutan stitched together a small coalition of bilateral partners like India, Thailand, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden and Denmark, who all agreed to step in as investors and donors of talent, bridges, telecom equipment, road-building plans and hydro-power technology.

Today the vast majority of Bhutan’s hard currency comes from ecotourism and hydro power-generated electricity. Its economy is one of the fastest growing in Asia. And the political structure is peacefully making the transition from monarchy to a kind of Asian-style democracy—at the king’s behest.

King Wangchuk created a novel development plan three decades ago, early on mandating that his country’s success be judged in part by the degree to which it makes the Bhutanese citizenry happy. Yes, happy. In Bhutan, happiness is a measuring stick by which all aspects of modernization are judged. The King believes that gross national happiness (GNH) is more important than the widely used measure of economic well-being, gross national product (GNP).

I went to Bhutan to see how this grand idea plays out in reality. When I asked middle-school students in the poorer rural areas, where one might think money and jobs would be the only things that are important, I got an earful. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise to me that in a land where the king is widely revered, there would be great enthusiasm for the GNH philosophy. Then again, I did not hear preprogrammed dogma about GNH. Moreover, in most cases the teachers left their classrooms when I arrived so the students were free to speak their minds, at least as much as one can expect from students speaking to a total stranger.

One 16-year-old boy in Bumthang, who like many Bhutanese goes by the name Karma, said he did not know of a single teenager in the countryside who did not feel encouraged by his government’s interest in developing the nation with the balanced sensibility fundamental to GNH. Throughout Bhutan, but especially in small towns like Bumthang, which are surrounded by striking snow-capped peaks, gentle waterfalls and verdant valleys filled with the sound of hawks and the occasional monkey chatter, an outsider can quickly forget that like most of the world, the rural interior is seriously impoverished.

Stuart Campbell, the American manager of the Uma Paro spa hotel in Paro, which opened a year ago, told me that entrepreneurs in Bhutan, most of whom are Bhutanese, regard GNH with guarded optimism if for no other reason than the perception in the business community that GNH creates a sense of stability. “The government certainly doesn’t require [businesses] to buy into GNH,” Campbell told me one night over dinner. “But I can guarantee you that every business owner in Bhutan that is smart will continue to embrace and support it because so far, at least, it’s been good for business.”

If the high ideal of Gross National Happiness succeeds over the long run, it will be in large part because the youth, entrepreneurs, and outside investors believe that it is good for them.

It doesn’t seem to matter that neither the king, nor anybody else throughout history for that matter, has figured out how to quantify happiness. To the contrary, it is perhaps because happiness cannot be measured that the King created the concept and goals of GNH in the first place. The thinking in Bhutan is that unless change results not just in a higher standard of living, but happiness, what’s the point of changing? Most governments, at least in theory, would like to think their policies are designed to maximize the happiness of the masses. Few really are. The king and government of Bhutan aim to be the exception to the rule. And they might just succeed.
Here are three reasons why:

* First, the four “pillars” of GNH—environmental conservation, socio-economic development, culture and good governance—have just been enshrined in the country’s first constitution as the guiding principles of the government’s contract with its people.
* Second, the Bhutanese do not merely have a right to happiness, they have a right to judge their government on the degree to which development and modernization plans are in keeping with GNH. Just as with their king, the Bhutanese may submit a grievance to the government if they feel their happiness is being neglected.
* Thirdly, Bhutanese across a broad spectrum of class and standing have embraced GNH as a good thing. All of the Bhutanese I met along my travels—and I met schoolteachers, students from K-12, farmers, bankers, country doctors, civil servants, Internet entrepreneurs, even cynical intellectuals and journalists—have bought into the idea that GNH is not a gimmick, but a plan for enlightened and sustainable development. They see GNH as a defining feature of their culture and a logical extension of their Buddhist tradition.

It is entirely possible that the good people of Bhutan are being hoodwinked into thinking their government really is weighing future development and modernization plans against the impact these plans will have upon their happiness. The Bhutanese and the rest of the world—which is beginning to pay attention to Bhutan’s happiness experiment—will know for certain soon enough. In a matter of months, the sole responsibility for governing Bhutan will officially pass from the partnership that has existed between the king and the government for the past six years to the government, entirely. The fate of GNH is now linked to the fate of the Bhutanese public, both of which are now under the control of an elected government.

The government has its work cut out for it. As one government official who oversees Bhutan’s bilateral relations told me, “Perhaps the greatest challenge is making sure that our neighbours in the region and our bilateral partners around the world respect our desire to develop our nation and our economy using the principles of GNH. We are a small developing country that depends very much upon its neighbours (and donors). It would be very easy to let others tell us how we should be modernizing.”

Today, no government official’s speech is complete without some mention of it. A national conference on the theory and pursuit of GNH has been spun out of a series of academic lectures on the topic. Last year’s first annual GNH conference was so popular, in fact, that the second installment, held this past June in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in an effort to make it more accessible to the global observers who have become intrigued by GNH, attracted some 400 academics and policy-makers from 35 countries. There is talk of inserting a panel discussion on GNH into the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Reporters who cover the developing nations of Asia on a regular basis say Bhutan is one of the bright spots on their beat.

If Bhutan can prove that a healthy economy, democracy, social equality, sustainable development, environmental protection and energy independence are all within reach of even the poorest nations, this tiny Buddhist country will turn 100 years of economic and political theory on its head and possibly even inspire other nations to take a chance on this Bhutanese style of Zen economic development.

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics who feel GNH and even Bhutan are not model operations. The Economist magazine essentially pronounced GNH a cheap parlour trick earlier this year. The Kathmandu Post, an English daily, had this to say about GNH: “The pseudo-reforms are an effort to create the appearance of political pluralism without autonomous social and economic power in Bhutan. Today, the supporters of the regime record success and talk about Gross National Happiness but they will not mention human-rights violations, the muzzled press, centralized government dominated by the elite, communal harmony and condition of exiles whose return is barred.”

Still, if Bhutan’s king and his ruling elite are up to no good, they certainly have hoodwinked a lot of very smart, well-traveled souls. George Martin, a retired infectious-disease specialist who spent nearly 30 years at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has seen his share of developing countries around the world. Martin says the issue is not whether Bhutan has problems. It does, not least in its health-care system. Rather, the point is that Bhutan has far fewer than any other developing nation he’s visited, save perhaps for Costa Rica. “Bhutan is a success story that has only just begun,” he says.

To be sure, Bhutan is still very much a developing country. Close to 90 percent of the population still relies upon the family farm for food and income. More than one-third of Bhutan’s budget is plugged with development aid. The country has $598 million U.S. in debt. Nearly two-thirds of Bhutan is still without electricity and one-quarter of the citizens live without sanitary drinking water.

The leading causes of death and disease haven’t changed all that much over the past 20 years. Most households use poorly ventilated wood-burning stoves in their kitchens. As a result, many Bhutanese still experience chronic and acute respiratory illness. They continue to suffer from malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, worms and infections. And health officials have had their hands full with a host of new diseases of modernity that have emerged in recent years, like hypertension, diabetes, and depression.

One gets the feeling that even if it is unintentional, GNH is masking greater problems in Bhutan. Nobody in the government will admit, for example, that although the economy is growing rapidly and the standard of living has improved markedly, the country still has a long way to go before it can lay any claim to a complete reversal from misfortune to fortune. But the Bhutanese I spoke with were not naive enough to think nothing could go wrong from here onward. Prime Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba told me he feels the risk of a backlash against GNH is low and will remain that way as long as the government itself does not forget the main objective of GNH: to move forward as a nation with eyes wide open. “We must modernize to survive,” he said. “But we must do it wisely and with a dose of humility.”

There are many conundrums. Bhutan’s ecotourism industry, for example, limits what villagers and farmers can do to electrify their homes. In Gangte, a vast and beautiful savannah in central Bhutan, power lines aren’t allowed out of fear they would disrupt the migratory patterns of the legendary black-necked crane. Local villagers naturally feel put upon because unlike tour operators, they do not profit from tourists. But there is talk of bringing electricity to such regions through alternative power sources like solar power, fuel cells and biomass. There is also talk of bringing electricity to the countryside through buried cables once the hydro-power infrastructure has expanded more broadly across the country.

In his book Happiness (Penguin, 2005), the British economist Richard Layard reminds us that societies need goals aimed at improving lives even if sometimes their purposes and payoffs are a matter of debate. “Society cannot flourish without some sense of shared purpose,” he writes.

Bhutan is gaining a sense of shared purpose, and that purpose is to prove to itself and the rest of the world that happiness can be merged with economic development. This has not necessarily made Bhutan a richer nation—although it probably has—but it has certainly captured the world’s imagination. As King Wangchuk stated at last year’s GNH conference, “I believe that while Gross National Happiness is inherently Bhutanese, its ideas may have a positive relevance to any nation, peoples or communities. … I also believe that there must be some convergence among nations on the idea of what the end objective of development and progress should be. There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent—if we do not accept that in the end we are people, all alike, sharing the earth among ourselves.”

Bhutan is certainly in the best position today to put this philosophy to the test. Let us hope that GNH proves the cynics wrong or at least remains part of the solution, rather than becoming part of the problem in Bhutan. The real test lies ahead. The world is watching. If GNH proves over time to be little more than empty words, it will be our loss too.

Stephan Herrera is an American journalist, specialized in politics, economy and technology. He is Nature’s news editor and writes for The Economist. He wrote this article at the request of Ode.

Solution News Source

SIGN UP

TO GET A Free DAILY DOSE OF OPTIMISM

Optimist Subscriber
Delivery Frequency *
reCAPTCHA

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously. Privacy Policy