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Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom

May 10, 2009

Under a new Constitution, government programs
must be judged by the happiness they produce, not by the economic benefits.
Thimphu Journal/International Herald Tribune
May 6, 2009

THIMPHU, Bhutan ­ If the rest of the world cannot
get it right in these unhappy times, this tiny
Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayan mountains
says it is working on an answer.

Government policies and programs will be judged
by the happiness they produce in the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

"Greed, insatiable human greed," said Prime
Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, describing what
he sees as the cause of today’s economic
catastrophe in the world beyond the snow-topped
mountains. "What we need is change," he said in
the whitewashed fortress where he works. "We need
to think gross national happiness."

The notion of gross national happiness was the
inspiration of the former king, Jigme Singye
Wangchuck, in the 1970s as an alternative to the
gross national product. Now, the Bhutanese are
refining the country’s guiding philosophy into
what they see as a new political science, and it
has ripened into government policy just when the
world may need it, said Kinley Dorji, secretary
of information and communications.

"You see what a complete dedication to economic
development ends up in," he said, referring to
the global economic crisis. "Industrialized
societies have decided now that G.N.P. is a broken promise."

Under a new Constitution adopted last year,
government programs ­ from agriculture to
transportation to foreign trade ­ must be judged
not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce.

The goal is not happiness itself, the prime
minister explained, a concept that each person
must define for himself. Rather, the government
aims to create the conditions for what he called,
in an updated version of the American Declaration
of Independence, "the pursuit of gross national happiness."

The Bhutanese have started with an experiment
within an experiment, accepting the resignation
of the popular king as an absolute monarch and
holding the country’s first democratic election a year ago.

The change is part of attaining gross national
happiness, Mr. Dorji said. "They resonate well,
democracy and G.N.H. Both place responsibility on
the individual. Happiness is an individual
pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual."

It was a rare case of a monarch’s unilaterally
stepping back from power, and an even rarer case
of his doing so against the wishes of his
subjects. He gave the throne to his son, Jigme
Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was crowned in
November in the new role of constitutional monarch without executive power.

Bhutan is, perhaps, an easy place to nimbly
rewrite economic rules ­ a country with one
airport and two commercial planes, where the east
can only be reached from the west after four days’ travel on mountain roads.

No more than 700,000 people live in the kingdom,
squeezed between the world’s two most populous
nations, India and China, and its task now is to
control and manage the inevitable changes to its
way of life. It is a country where cigarettes are
banned and television was introduced just 10
years ago, where traditional clothing and
architecture are enforced by law and where the
capital city has no stoplight and just one traffic officer on duty.

If the world is to take gross national happiness
seriously, the Bhutanese concede, they must work
out a scheme of definitions and standards that
can be quantified and measured by the big players of the world’s economy.

"Once Bhutan said, ‘O.K., here we are with
G.N.H.,’ the developed world and the World Bank
and the I.M.F. and so on asked, ‘How do you
measure it?’ -- Mr. Dorji said, characterizing
the reactions of the world’s big economic
players. So the Bhutanese produced an intricate
model of well-being that features the four
pillars, the nine domains and the 72 indicators of happiness.

Specifically, the government has determined that
the four pillars of a happy society involve the
economy, culture, the environment and good
governance. It breaks these into nine domains:
psychological well-being, ecology, health,
education, culture, living standards, time use,
community vitality and good governance, each with
its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.

All of this is to be analyzed using the 72
indicators. Under the domain of psychological
well-being, for example, indicators include the
frequencies of prayer and meditation and of
feelings of selfishness, jealousy, calm,
compassion, generosity and frustration as well as suicidal thoughts.

"We are even breaking down the time of day: how
much time a person spends with family, at work and so on," Mr. Dorji said.

Mathematical formulas have even been devised to
reduce happiness to its tiniest component parts.
The G.N.H. index for psychological well-being,
for example, includes the following: "One sum of
squared distances from cutoffs for four
psychological well-being indicators. Here,
instead of average the sum of squared distances
from cutoffs is calculated because the weights add up to 1 in each dimension."

This is followed by a set of equations:

= 1-(.25+.03125+.000625+0)

= 1-.281875

= .718

Every two years, these indicators are to be
reassessed through a nationwide questionnaire,
said Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the Gross
National Happiness Commission, as he sat in his
office at the end of a hard day of work that he said made him happy.

Gross national happiness has a broader
application for Bhutan as it races to preserve
its identity and culture from the encroachments of the outside world.

"How does a small country like Bhutan handle
globalization?" Mr. Dorji asked. "We will survive
by being distinct, by being different."

Bhutan is pitting its four pillars, nine domains
and 72 indicators against the 48 channels of
Hollywood and Bollywood that have invaded since
television was permitted a decade ago.

"Before June 1999 if you asked any young person
who is your hero, the inevitable response was,
‘The king,’ -- Mr. Dorji said. "Immediately after
that it was David Beckham, and now it’s 50 Cent,
the rap artist. Parents are helpless.”

So if G.N.H. may hold the secret of happiness for
people suffering from the collapse of financial
institutions abroad, it offers something more
urgent here in this pristine culture.

"Bhutan’s story today is, in one word, survival,"
Mr. Dorji said. "Gross national happiness is
survival; how to counter a threat to survival.”
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