An Introduction to GNH
By Jigmi Y Thinley of Bhutan, Prime Minister of Bhutan
Institutional History of GNH
As some of you may not be aware of GNH, let me begin with a short introduction. Bhutan began its interest in GNH when His Majesty the Fourth King pronounced the GNH concept in the early 1970s. When he spoke about GNH at the time, and questioned the then prevailing assumption that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) alone could deliver happiness and well-being to society, he was still a teenage monarch It was really a breathtakingly bold and profound questioning, more so because it came out of the mind of a teenager.
Since his pronouncements, the worldwide development experience of the last four decades, shows his question to be absolutely pertinent, because much of the economic development has somehow failed to provide satisfaction or subjective well-being, especially in the industrialised, wealthy north where they are stagnating, although economic prosperity is rising.
In the reign of the Fourth King, the actual road map for positive development in the light of GNH were developed in terms of corresponding laws and polices, and we now enjoy that legacy in Bhutan.
His Majesty firmly believed that happiness is an indicator, a signifier, and a sign of good development and good society. He also believed in the legitimacy of public deliberation, public discussion, and public opinion in defining any goal, whether it was GNH or other issues, through to democracy and enlightened citizenship. That is why Bhutan became a constitutional democracy in 2008, whereby we have political parties, democratic discourse, voting, and the other institutional arrangements of a democracy.
After more than a century of enlightened governance and nation-building by the monarchy, Their Majesties - the 4th King and the 5th King - launched our country into parliamentary democracy. Their visions of GNH and democracy for our country are complementary.
His Majesty the 5th King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who ascended the Throne in 2006, has provided further stimulus to GNH. Developing the concept and measurement of GNH has gone hand in hand with practising GNH through policies and programmes. Our Constitution describes the state and the government as having responsibilities to pursue GNH and the Bhutanese government aspires to make GNH a serious arbitrator of public policies and plans.
Correspondingly, we have attempted to develop institutions to apply GNH to policy and programme formulation, forging stronger and clearer links between the concepts of GNH and their application to society as a whole.
But this is not the case around the world, where the organisational structure of the government roughly echoes the economic structure of GDP. Just as there are sectors including agriculture, trade, industry, mining, electricity, banking and finances in the GDP accounts, there are corresponding ministries focused on the delivery of associated goods and services. This is no surprise in a development paradigm underpinned by GDP.
If a society moves towards GNH as the goal of society, its government organisational structure should change to include psycholog
ical and community well-being, cultural and ecological resilience, balanced time-use and other important elements or domains of GNH.
If the goal of a government is to deliver GNH, we must create institutions that are charged with specific objectives, entailed by the structure and design of GNH. If all of these come to fruition, then in the distant future, or perhaps even in our life time, the attitudes and opinions of leaders may shift to make it possible for futuristic organisations to emerge, such as, say, the Ministry of Community Vitality.
Agencies concerned with our psychological well-being, in response to the rise of mental problems, may also be established, just as organisations d
ealing with the environmental problems arose rapidly within the last 20 years. The Health and Education ministries may be merged to focus on a person as a whole. These are fantasies in today’s context, but could become perfectly normal in times to come.
Concept of Happiness
At the core of GNH is collective happiness, which has several characteristics. Over the centuries, happiness has been relegated to the private realm, while provisions of many other goods and services of public nature were brought to the fore of the public realm. These goods and services have even begun to substitute collective happiness as ends in themselves.
Like the concept of justice, happiness is a public good, and although it is experienced subjectively, happiness is influenced by a frame of reference. In that sense it is partly relative to a person’s experiences with respect to others - and with respect to the past. However, and more importantly, it is relational in character.
If happiness is more relational than relative, having resilient and deep relationships and designing the appropriate type and range of organisations that breed such positive relationships, is a crucial issue.
Within the last century, the world has become more urban than ever before, with almost 50 percent of the global population living in urban settings. As our social networks transform from small, rural settlements into a more urban lifestyle, there is an obvious dislocation and breakdown of community and social life - and the values that underpin community vitality.
Through GNH, we have to regenerate the social heartbeat of the community - one of the essential foundations of happiness - and reconnect individuals back with the community. This has huge implications on urban settlement planning vs. rural rejuvenation, with more emphasis on the latter.
We need not accept that development should be carried in terms of what has so far happened, such as extreme urbanisation as a necessary accompaniment. Urbanisation is an escape only if we fail to develop all parts of our country, and that escape, as I said, is not advantageous to all. I hope the hyper-trend in urbanisation around the world can be contained through the localisation of production and the scaling down of huge settlements.
The urban future will not be so radiant if we unflinchingly calculate the cost of the dysfunctional aspect of cities, from slums to crime. The negative consequences of urbanisation in terms of our ecological and carbon foot print are well-known, though not taken in account into policy making. Food that keeps the urban population alive travels perhaps the longest distance, leading to the longest “food-miles’’. Some of the food-miles stretch not just from one urban area to other parts of the country, but from an urban area to other parts of the globe. The quantities of waste production, which cannot be metabolised by the ecology of the urban centres, are nothing short of horrendous. Above all, the consequences in terms of breakdown of the social links and communal affiliations through urbanisation have been no less severe, resulting in lower levels of happiness.
Happiness is obviously dependent on the external stimuli of our senses. Currently, most people consider the pleasant sensations of the five faculties (touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight) as sources of happiness and satisfaction. These stimuli come from outside depending on the use of material external resources, with the result that the more satisfaction we want, the more resources have to be used. However, our happiness should not be completely dependent on external resources and their associated stimuli. It should be balanced with inner contemplation (meditation) as a source and technique of contentment, by knowing enough about our true nature.
This contemplative method supports our mental well-being and improves our learning abilities. Its widespread practice can help strike a balance between external and internal sources of happiness.
Ultimately, with respect to resources needed for our ever rising level of external stimuli, we cannot avoid coming to terms with the idea of a ‘sufficiency condition’ for our happiness and welfare. Beyond a certain level of affluence, adding more cannot enhance happiness and welfare, but will impact negatively on the ecology, in our boundless quest for external stimuli for our senses. The level of wealth cannot be infinite in scope, nor can we allow ourselves to have an infinite aspiration for wealth. It must be determined by the capacity of the specific ecology of a place at an objective level, and by what is deemed sufficient at an individual level. The balance between the economy and ecology is a key consideration in GNH.
Finally, the experience of subjective happiness is not static over the life cycle of an individual. Obviously, its meaning changes with sensitivities and our understanding of interdependence. We cannot be truly happy as an individual while there is suffering around us, whether we bear responsibility for some of it or not. The broader a horizon a person has, the more sensitive and holistic a person is. The more he realises his happiness is connected to others, the more encompassing his ethical motivation for enabling happiness among all of us becomes.