Un­happy? Wel­come to Bhutan – the na­tion of 90% joy

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Tim Dowl­ing

News from the In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness, where Bhutan’s hap­pi­ness in­dex rose from 0.743 in 2010 to 0.756 in 2015. “Is this fast or slow?” asked Bhutan’s prime min­is­ter in his key­note speech. “We do not yet know. We are still learn­ing what is a ‘good’ growth rate!” He sounds jolly.

The no­tion of GNH was first in­tro­duced by Bhutan’s fourth king in the 70s, when he an­nounced that “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness is more im­por­tant that gross na­tional prod­uct”. The GNH in­dex is a num­ber crunched from hap­pi­ness sur­vey sta­tis­tics across nine “do­mains”, of which only one is liv­ing stan­dards. Oth­ers in­clude health, ed­u­ca­tion, psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing, time use, com­mu­nity vi­tal­ity and cul­tural di­ver­sity.

GNH is a blend of hard num­bers, sub­jec­tive per­cep­tions and vir­tu­ally un­mea­sur­able con­cepts, but it works pretty well in Bhutan, pro­vided you’re not among the 17% of the pop­u­la­tion – mostly Hin­dus of Nepalese ori­gin – expelled from the coun­try in the 90s. It’s one way to get your GNH in­dex up – kick out that op­pressed mi­nor­ity.

In the last decade the idea of GNH has gained in­ter­na­tional trac­tion. In the US some states mea­sure the gen­uine progress indi­ca­tor, along­side gross state prod­uct. In 2012, the UN re­leased a World Hap­pi­ness re­port. And the UK’s Of­fice For Na­tional Sta­tis­tics re­cently started mea­sur­ing na­tional well­be­ing.

There’s noth­ing wrong with mea­sur­ing sub­jec­tive hap­pi­ness lev­els – it’s in­ter­est­ing pre­cisely be­cause they’re sub­jec­tive. Re­cent GDP im­prove­ments brought no cor­re­spond­ing in­crease Bri­tish well­be­ing. In Bhutan, peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of their own health wors­ened even as health­care in­dices im­proved. Still, 91% of Bhutanese are classed as ei­ther nar­rowly, ex­ten­sively or deeply happy. Joy-wise it’s roughly on a par with Den­mark, even though Bhutan’s adult lit­er­acy rate is around 60% and its GDP per capita puts it well be­low mid-ta­ble in world rank­ings.

Hap­pi­ness is rel­a­tive, which means the sta­tis­tics can be pressed into ser­vice by any­body want­ing to prove any­thing, in­clud­ing those who would sug­gest that spend­ing money to im­prove peo­ple’s lives isn’t worth the bother. I fear that’s where all this well­be­ing mea­sure­ment will lead us. But cheer up – it may never hap­pen.

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