Happiness is a totally subjective state of mind. What makes me happy (wine & sunshine, in case you’re interested) may not be appealing to you. Nevertheless, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has taken on the seemingly ambitious task of pledging happiness for all of its citizens. In fact – other politicians take note - the Bhutanese government prioritises GNH, the Gross National Happiness of its people, over GDP as a measure of the country’s prosperity.
Having visited the country, I can tell you that this admirable policy actually appears to work! The Bhutanese people I met appeared happy and content even those I mingled with when stuck in a road block for several hours (testing times!). So, what is the Bhutanese government doing to achieve GNH, and how do they quantify this emotion? Whilst the idea may conjure up idyllic images of clerks travelling the Bhutanese countryside, counting the smiling citizens, there are evidently more definitive criteria behind the philosophy…
Currently just over 70% of Bhutan is covered in forest, and the constitution states that this figure should never drop below 60%. Thanks primarily to this extensive forest coverage, Bhutan is the only country in the world that can lay claim to being carbon negative; figures suggest that the nation actually absorbs three times the carbon it produces. Impressive, right? Bhutan’s pledge at the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris to remain carbon negative is backed up by a ban on export logging, plans to introduce electric cars, and an emphasis on hydroelectric power over the use of fossil fuels.
The protection of the forests has an obvious effect on wildlife, and Bhutan has been identified as one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. It’s home to an incredible variety of birdlife and significantly rare animals, such as snow leopards and Himalayan blue sheep.
A growing number of studies have identified a positive connection between nature and wellbeing. Evidence shows that exposure to nature can increase self-esteem and improve mood; reduce stress levels and blood pressure - essentially make us happier and healthier. It should come as no surprise that Bhutan’s preservation of its natural environment contributes positively to its high GNH.
Along with the focus on environmental conservation, Bhutan’s powers-that-be scrutinise every development proposal that comes along, both for its impact on the environment and on the local population, prioritising social and ecological considerations over commercial interests. Lucky for Selective Asia, this ‘sustainability’ approach is also applied to tourism in Bhutan, with a focus on low volume, high value visitors, as opposed to opening the country’s doors to mass market tourism with its inevitable impact on the landscape and people’s lives.
Because Bhutan is a small country sandwiched between the giant nations of India and China, its distinct cultural identity and age-old traditions could easily be diluted by the values and beliefs of these much larger countries. To prevent this, a Heritage Sites Bill has been put in place to safeguard significant buildings such as the numerous dzongs and monasteries that are dotted throughout the country. Lively, colourful village festivals continue to be part of the annual calendar, as they have for generations, and national dress is commonly worn throughout the country, even though it’s only obligatory for school children and government officials. I must admit I was surprised when I visited Bhutan to see people of all ages wearing national dress - even in Thimpu, where ‘modern’ clothing is available. Having said that, contemporary fashion is seeping in, and it’s not unusual to see a pair of Nike trainers poking out from under a young woman’s Kira, or the pouch at the front of a man’s Gho used to carry a wallet and mobile phone (whereas traditionally it held food and a small dagger)!
All-in-all, by preserving the Bhutanese culture, officials are creating a sense of being part of a wider, unified community, and according to psychological studies, that makes you feel good! Research has shown that when people feel connected to others around them and a sense of group identity, they feel happier, more secure and overall more satisfied with their life.
As recently as 2008, Bhutan made the major transition from being an absolute monarchy to democratic parliamentary rule, albeit under the guiding hand of the well-respected King. Good governance is the fourth element of GNH, and a democratically elected government untainted by corruption is an essential step towards this goal. Incidentally, the first elections in December 2007 saw an incredible 80% of the population turn out to vote!
Besides these four main pillars of GNH, other notable social policies - such as free healthcare for all and free education up to tertiary level - contribute to the general happiness and wellbeing of Bhutan’s citizens.
While this all may seem a little idealistic, and there are underlying issues threatening to de-rail GNH (growing youth unemployment and low living standards, for example) the policy continues to be at the forefront of Bhutanese politics. In an age of climate change, intense modernisation and boundless consumerism, surely many countries could learn from what this tiny Himalayan kingdom is advocating.