As The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar noted last month, Bhutan’s recent parliamentary election results paint a less than happy picture of the Himalayan kingdom known for exporting its ideal of Gross National Happiness (GNH) – an acronym that cynics quip is short for “Government Needs Help”.
After trumpeting the concept of GNH for the past five years, since Bhutan’s first national election in 2008, the former ruling party Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa (DPT) was swept from office by the opposing People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Led by Tshering Tobgay, a charismatic Harvard grad with a more data-crunching approach to happiness, the PDP’s mandate was clear. The former opposition party won with 32 of 47 parliamentary seats.
While the nation’s new prime minister acknowledges the merit of listening to the public and accounting for its subjective quotient of happiness, he won the peoples’ trust by raising a question that grew in intensity in the past few years: is GNH little more than an empty slogan?
“If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction,” said Tobgay, who eschews speaking in abstractions. “There are four issues that can compound to make matters extremely bleak: our ballooning debt that if we’re not careful will not be sustainable; the big rupee shortage; unemployment, in particular youth unemployment; and a perception of growing corruption. These four combined can make a lethal combination.”
He added: “Since we are largely Buddhist, everything we do has a basis in Buddhism, so in that respect you can say GNH has its roots in Buddhism.”
The Buddhist links greet visitors to Bhutan at every turn. As The Guardian notes, the mountain road that winds from the airport to Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu is lined with hand-painted signs that announce positive affirmations that could have come from the pages of a self-help book.
According to the article, one reads: “Let nature be your guide.”
Another: “Life is a journey! Complete it!” Sadly, many Bhutanese do not.
Some of the very problems mentioned by Tobgay – namely, old age, unemployment and depression; along with alcohol abuse, financial worries and mental illness – are driving men to take their own lives, reflected in the nation’s alarming suicide rates. Tobgay feels that GNH has failed to address these issues since it became the basis for Bhutan’s foreign policy.
Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, proposed the idea of GNH in 1972 and the kingdom has since vouched for it as an alternative metric of progress to economically derived metrics like GDP. The GNH metric comprises measurements of subjective factors ranging from psychological wellbeing and the vitality of communities and a healthy environment. An in-depth treatise on the ideal can be read here.
A good place to observe the principles of GNH in action is the classroom. As part of its holistic happiness agenda, the Bhutanese government made an effort to create “green schools.”
“It sounded good but I wasn’t sure how it would work,” admitted Choki Dukpa, a Bhutanese teacher. “The idea of being green does not just mean the environment it is a philosophy for life.”
From agricultural know-how to recycling all materials used at school, the green school ideal aims to cultivate holistic thinking in its children. Daily meditation is also part of the daily routine, with calming traditional music being used in place of the traditional auditory attack of the school bell.
The idea spread and has become a bona fide soft power initiative that has won admirers overseas, in countries such as Britain, France to Canada. In 2011, even the UN took a cue from Bhutan, recognizing that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and inviting Bhutan’s government to chair a panel on what happiness means. A UN resolution further conceded that GDP “was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.” The UN even declared this March 20 the first International Day of Happiness.
Bhutan’s concept of GNH has further reached the masses after it was featured prominently in the book The Geography of Bliss, which seeks out the world’s happiest spots. Further examples include the book Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness, as well as Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness, an Emmy-winning film that explores the nation’s secret to the good life.
Although Tobgay has been outspoken in his belief that the government must turn to more concrete matters, he has left the door open to promoting GNH – in its right place.This is where the nation’s beloved monarch comes in. As the country’s symbolic leader, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is well suited to take up the torch for GNH in Tobgay’s view.
“We have experts, the foremost of whom is our king,” Tobgay said. “I would like for real experts to take center stage, leading the discourse at home and abroad. I think the Bhutanese people will be thrilled if His Majesty champions the cause.”