What is so Gross about Happiness?

While not directly related to India, one of the interesting outgrowths with regard to social entrepreneurship is Bhutan’s focus on measuring its Gross National Happiness. Wall Street Journal reports.

As Bhutan enters these uncharted political and economic waters, its leaders want to prove that they can achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture. To do that, they’ve decided to start calculating GNH. It means coming up with an actual happiness index that can be tracked over time.

This index has surprisingly led to traditionally sought after economic growth. Bhutan has averaged a growth rate of about 7% annually during the focus on increasing national happiness.

Originally developed in the 1980s by one of the nation’s kings, the metric must now stand up to modern critiques and emerge a quantifiable means for assessing the development and economic health of this country. Today the country successfully held an election, and plans are in motion to join the WTO. The emphasis on GNH has no doubt lead to unusual results in the past.

Happiness as defined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who is credited with creating GNH and whose philosophy still guides the commission, can be found in a life that incorporates cultural traditions and respects the natural world. Traditional Bhutanese robes are required dress for all nationals in government buildings, for instance. It is national policy for 60% of the country to be covered in forests (the actual figure is slightly above 70%). Public smoking is also banned, although widely skirted at the many new pubs and karaoke bars in the capital, Thimphu.

No longer satisfied with the abstract concept, thinktanks are now trying to establish a quantifiable metric for GNH.

The Center for Bhutan Studies, a local think tank, has been devising a way to quantify that mood. It is developing a GNH index based on extensive public surveys. Researchers have fanned out across the country, interviewing more than 1,000 households, according to Karma Ura, head of the center. The sample size is considered large in a country with only 750,000 people and not a single traffic light.

However, such an approach will continue obfuscate the fact that Bhutan remains a relatively poor country with feeble infrastructure. Also, the GNH has been used in the past to support questionable immigration policies, particularly with the deportation of Nepalese individuals. Nevertheless the focus on happiness has resulted in some progressive and socially conscious goals. Bhutan’s proposal for 2020 indicates just this:

It contains some novel proposals. Rather than increase the population, Bhutan wants to reduce the birth rate by almost two-thirds over the next 15 years — mainly by spreading the use of contraceptives and trying to ensure girls stay in school longer. And rather than urbanize Bhutan, which is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, the government wants to stay largely agrarian to protect the environment.

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