A couple of years ago I heard about an idea that eventually changed my life. That idea was Gross National Happiness (GNH).
It sounds dramatic, but it is true. I must have heard about it before, but I was first truly captivated by the idea of GNH through a TED talk by Chip Conley with the title ‘Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile’. At the time, I wrote a blog post for TEDxAmsterdam making the case to measure happiness and change the state.
No, the rest was not history. But everything that followed brought me to the creation of this blog, my coming of age as a happiness researcher and speaker, and ultimately to my trip to Bhutan to explore GNH.
Explore Gross National Happiness
Because indeed, four years after this first blog post, I finally have the chance to travel to Bhutan. I’ll be in the fortunate position to attend a conference on Gross National Happiness “From GNH Philosophy to Practice and Policy” at the Centre for Bhutan Studies. The CBS is a research institute on Bhutan and GNH, based in the capital Thimphu. While GNH as an idea dates back to the 1970s, it has been developed more thoroughly in the 2000s and 2010s. The 2012 GNH survey found that 8% of Bhutanese is ‘deeply happy’ and 32% ‘extensively’ happy. 48% of the 700,000-odd Bhutanese citizens scores ‘narrowly happy’, which means achieving a sufficient level in 50% of the 33 indicators. Only 10% of Bhutanese is unhappy.
GNH is not only something that is being researched and benchmarked. Importantly, the policy requires that new government proposal need to be assessed for their impact on GNH. For instance, Bhutan has decided not to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after a finding that it would not contribute to GNH.
A country full of paradoxes like any other
Making a dream come true is risky.
It can be dangerous to make a trip I’ve so long looked forward to. Due to GNH, Bhutan has long been a darling of Western travelers looking for philosophy, spirituality, and ultimately, happiness. Some Western observers have idealised or ‘Shangrilised’ Bhutan as a country.
Others, on the other extreme, have criticised the country as hypocrite for its low level of development, the use of GNH as an excuse for a failure to meaningfully increase the quality of life, or for ethnic violence in the 1990s.
Only when I am there I’ll know whether I am falling in either of these traps.
I’ve had several years the time to do my research and hopefully I have a balanced image of the place. Recently in my preparations of the trip, I read the book ‘A splendid isolation‘ by journalist Madeline Drexler. She aims to offer a balanced approach, highlighting that Bhutan like any other country on the world is full of paradoxes:
- Tobacco advertising and smoking are forbidden – but in 2011, there was an outcry when a monk was sentenced for three years for smuggling in chewing tobacco for a value of $2.50.
- There is a target of 100% organic crops – but many food products are imported from India.
- Economic development is a policy objective – but self-owned business are seen as ungenerous to the collective.
- Anti-litter laws are strict – but citizens ignore them.
Well, all I can do is promise to share my experience upon my return.
And for the mean time, I’ll leave you with a documentary that made a great impression on me. In a few words, it shows how Bhutan as a country is struggling with the arrival of modern times. Or more precisely, with the arrival of TVs – replacing yaks – in the countryside.