“We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer,
and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom
and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds”
- Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinley (2008)
In the last half century, Gross Domestic Product has exploded in the United States - yet our self-reported levels of happiness have remained stagnant. Our relentless quest for economic growth above all else is driving our current global warming crisis, and pushing ecosystems and traditional cultures to the point of collapse. In this sense, Gross Domestic Product as the primary measure of progress seems to be failing to deliver on the most basic promise of our constitution - “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The toll is also deeply personal. More and more of us feel overworked and overstressed, and chronic illnesses linked to our consumerist society, such as obesity, diabetes, and depression, are at an all-time high. The crisis could best be described as a spiritual crisis, as both individually and collectively we struggle to live an authentically happy life against the backdrop of a global economic system that leaves many workers feeling disconnected from both a sense of community, purpose, and meaning.
At the same time, the still-nascent field of positive psychology has begun to map the terrain of human flourishing, affirming many ancient maxims as to the conditions that make us authentically happy. Unsurprisingly, research indicates that material development alone is correlated to increased levels of happiness only to a degree, after which it has little bearing. The emphasis in our culture on the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of the pleasurable life (what Aristotle termed hedonic well-being) is at odds with what science has revealed to be the source of authentic, sustaining happiness: the pursuit of the meaningful life (Eudaimonic well-being, or “living the virtuous life”). Here, our economic system, grounded in the idea of unrestrained growth and the endless cycle of consumption needed to sustain it, is fundamentally at odds with our pursuit of happiness.
So the question is, if our economy isn’t delivering happiness and well-being to its participants - and is driving the rampant consumerism that is overtaxing our environment - what are the alternatives?
After centuries of self-imposed isolation, in the 70s the fourth King of Bhutan looked at the development trajectory of neighboring countries like Nepal and India, and recognized that if he failed to act, his country’s unique culture and pristine environment could be lost. He determined that a new development paradigm was needed to ensure that economic growth was accompanied by measurable improvement in the well-being of his people. As a result, for the last 30 years, Bhutan has embarked on a brave experiment to use indicators for happiness and well-being - collectively known as Gross National Happiness - as its primary measure of progress.
Bhutan has partnered with the world’s leading economists and psychologists to transform Gross National Happiness from a mere slogan to a sophisticated index for well-being including 33 indicators under nine domains: time use, living standards, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, culture, health, education, and ecology. Interestingly, the subjective question “are you happy” (a question expressive of more temporary states of hedonic well-being) isn’t a part of the index - instead, the index focuses maintaining and developing the necessary conditions for happiness.
So what’s behind Bhutan’s policy of GNH - and is it replicable in other parts of the world?
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On the most elemental level, Gross National Happiness is grounded in Buddhist values that emphasize unity over separateness, compassion over competition, and reverence for life in all of its forms. One of the most important factors in Bhutan’s happiness is their strong sense of social connection or belongingness that emerges from their sense of collective identity. Recent research has indicated that this sense of relatedness is one of the most important contributors to happiness.
This may be Bhutan’s biggest lesson for the West. Our sense of social connection is at an all time low in the US, as the increasing time we spend at work and our culture's emphasis on individualism and competition has eroded family and community values. In 2004 a study by the American Sociological Review found that almost half of Americans feel like they have 0 or 1 person they can confide in. And the cost to our well-being is tremendous: mortality risk associated with this social isolation or “loneliness” has been found to be comparable to that of smoking.
There are signs that lessons from Bhutan can be applied in different contexts. In 2011 the UN adopted a resolution “to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies” and, to date there are literally hundreds of grassroots organizations in the United States championing the integration of metrics for happiness and well-being across all segments of society. Within homes and workplaces everywhere, a movement is quietly taking shape, as people begin to seek more deeply, turning to meditation and mindfulness practices, to community gatherings and dinners, to spending more time in the natural world an effort to experience the truth of their interconnectedness.