Visualize a kingdom of awesome snow-capped mountains, with leopards and yaks roaming the hills. Vast stretches of primal forest, where contentment is valued over commerce, and an enlightened king declares that the happiness of his people is more important than economic production. A fairy tale? A dream of the imagination? A virtual realm in Second Life? None of the above. It's a real place, with real people - the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Bhutan has been capturing the world's attention by its innovative measurement of GNH (Gross National Happiness) instead of GNP (Gross National Product). For years GDP, the indicator of progress that sums up all the economic transactions taking place within a society, has been increasingly criticized, most recently in a conference of the European Commission in Brussels. GNP not only fails to take into account environmental costs, but also includes forms of economic growth which are actually detrimental to well-being. For instance, expenditures on medical bills, crime or divorce, and even disasters like Katrina - are calculated as additions to GDP.
GNH, however, goes one step further. It places happiness at the very core of development. Since Aristotle, the search for happiness has been considered the essence of life, and even the US Declaration of Independence enshrined its pursuit as a fundamental right for all citizens. And now in the 21st century, the King of Bhutan, Jigme, Singye Wangchuk - last year declared by Time Magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people - has declared GNH to be the touchstone of all government development policies.
Last week I participated in the Third International Conference on Gross National Happiness, convened in Bangkok, Thailand. Numerous speakers emphasized that whereas GDP was based on the belief that accumulation of economic production leads to more well-being, research is showing the contrary. After a certain level of income, increasing wealth is not conducive to increased happiness.
Former Thai foreign minister Dr. Surin Pitsuwan lamented, "The fast-paced growth of Asia for the last decades has been a mind-boggling 10%. But we ask, Are we happier than before, with our prosperity, with our rapidly growing incomes? Many say we are not." Indeed, when I looked around me in Bangkok, the graceful spires of Thai temples with their gilded tiles gleaming in the sunlight have now been dwarfed by gargantuan shopping centers like giant spaceships. "We here in Southeast Asia," Pitsuwan concluded, "in spite of our millions of ruppees, of ringgit, of baht, we feel more insecure about our lives, about our families, about our future, than ever before."
Bhutan has provided an alternative. The Bhutanese delegates to the conference attracted attention not only by the distinctive embroidered tunics of their national dress, but by their aura of internal joyfulness that reminded me of the imperturbable joviality of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. According to Dasho Karma Ura, the Director for the Center for Bhutan Studies, the GNH indicators on which Bhutan's policy decisions are based are: living standard, health, education, ecosystem resilience, psychological well-being, cultural diversity, balanced use of time, good governance, and community vitality. He explains, "Income is not pursued for its own sake but to increase the quality of life, which means attaining happiness. Happiness based on ethics, and on nurturing relationships between people and with nature. And an inner happiness based on spirituality."
In a world of accelerating ecological, socio-economic and psychological breakdown, perhaps the Bhutanese with their Himalayan wisdom have something to teach us. That we can attain prosperity in harmony with the planet without losing the true well-spring of happiness: our connection to each other, to the Earth, and to the spirit within us.