Gross National Happiness versus Gross Domestic Product:
Global definitions of prosperity
In the United States, we tend to focus on economic prosperity and material goods as being the core of a happy existence; having a roof over our heads, having enough money to feed ourselves and treat ourselves to the little material luxuries in life.
As a global community, we’re compelled to create systems by which we can monitor and assess our success. The most prominent system currently used is called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which serves to gauge the health of a country’s economy, therefore gauging, in theory, the country’s overall prosperity. In recent years an alternative model to this system has become a prominent talking point in global affairs.
Bhutan, a small, impoverished Himalayan country located between China and India, has proposed the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH), which serves to gauge a country’s overall happiness instead of its economic output. GNH is intended to serve as an alternative means by which we can measure the health of a country, operating under the ideology that “happiness takes precedence over economic prosperity in … national development.”
GNH is built around four pillars of national wellness, consisting of good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental preservation. Within these four pillars exist nine domains of well-being, which include psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, ecological diversity and resilience, community vitality, and standards of living.
These domains are intended to represent the components of well-being considered to be most important by the Bhutanese people, which the Bhutanese Prime Minister believes distinguish true happiness from the “fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ mood so often associated with that term.” The Bhutanese approach to happiness differs immensely from the conventional Western approach in that it opposes the idea of fleeting happiness from purchasing goods and services.
Instead, the Bhutanese believe that we should be striving for the pursuit of long-term contentment derived from good health, education, interpersonal relationships and spirituality. The idea of government working toward the personal happiness of its people has had a long-standing history in Bhutan, dating to at least the 1620’s. Bhutan’s legal code of 1629 states that“if the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist.”
Whether this proves to be an effective global policy remains to be seen, but within the borders of Bhutan, improvements are already being made in accordance with the results from the preliminary index findings. Bhutan has pledged to keep a minimum of 60 percent of their lands devoted to jungle, with many wildlife refuges and conservatories intended to improve environmental well-being and connectedness between humans and nature.
Within the last 20 years, Bhutan has also doubled its life expectancy and enrolled nearly all of its children in primary schools. Modernization poses a distinct threat to this delicate system; television and the internet have spread the materialistically-conscious notions of the West, changing the way that Bhutanese people view themselves and their lifestyle in a global context. Still, the Bhutanese government strives to follow the GNH model, pushing for sustainable development that stems from their traditions and cultural values and “gives equal importance to the non-economic aspects of well-being.”
Whether this leads to economic growth is of little importance to the Bhutanese government and begs the question of whether or not we, as a global population, place too much emphasis on material goods and economic health instead of on the health and well-being of ourselves, our families and neighbors and our environment.